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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 14:13 GMT 15:13 UK
How to get a stress-free workplace
Short temper, anxiety, tension, depression - just some of the symptoms of stress. And with Britons putting in the longest hours in Europe, work is a prime cause. Is it possible to de-stress the workplace?

Dawn in the sitcom The Office
Can't wait to get away?
When the sun blazed down on Monday, countless workers gazed grumpily at the blue skies and wished - if not for a day off - that they could at least head to a local park for the afternoon meeting.

Not those at the microelectronics firm Ingenico Fortronic in Fife. As the temperature rose, its 250-strong workforce spilled into the garden to conduct their daily business. For the office has a lavish staff playground - including a chill-out zone, bistro and games room - kitted out for wireless working.

"We encourage staff to hold meetings in the garden - on hot days it is always packed," says spokeswoman Rochelle Bushell. "And no-one abuses it. People take time out when they need to, but we find that they stay longer and work harder. People are a lot more relaxed too."

While few firms have gone this far in their attempts to sweeten work life, the onus is now firmly on employers to deal with stresses that arise.

Ingenico Fortronic photo
Workers cannot relax by fun and games alone - but it might help
Bosses could face legal action if they fail to keep pressure at a manageable level, and to this end the Health and Safety Executive has published a six-point code on how to measure stress at work.

If fewer than 85% of all staff feel they can cope with the demands of the job, for instance, or one-third say they have been bullied at work, the company must do better.

Employees can already sue their companies for causing them unnecessary stress under the Health and Safety at Work Act. But cases can be difficult to prove, and the HSE has not brought any prosecutions on these grounds. The new guidelines may change that by giving its inspectors a way of assessing a firm's performance.

Ben Williams, an Edinburgh-based chartered corporate psychologist, says distractions such as table football or at-desk pampering sessions do not necessarily ease tensions.

"If people really want time out, they should go outside and have a walk in the fresh air, or a coffee in the canteen - anything that takes them out of their work environment."

And generous paypackets do not equal relaxed staff. The supermarket chain Asda came out top in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For last year, a list compiled from staff satisfaction surveys. The average salary may only be 9,000 a year, but workers praised the family spirit of the company and its approachable management.

Chilled-out change manager

Bosses keen to beat stress should ensure that support is available, and that the work to be done is sufficiently challenging to keep it interesting.

"Without sufficient challenges, workers run the risk of rust out, in which they get bored and start clock-watching - that is stressful in itself. But if the pressure becomes too great, people suffer burn out."

David Beckham after a run-in with his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson
David Beckham after a run-in with his boss, Sir Alex Ferguson
One of the greatest causes of stress in the workplace is change, Mr Williams says, and staff need help to work through their reactions to a shift, be it a physical relocation or lay-offs.

Which is not to say that only stressed-out workers need attention. Mr Williams recommends that all bosses offer praise rather than criticise slip-ups, and encourage friendly interaction between staff.

"Praise is an antidote to the blame culture, and it's very important for getting the best out of people. It doesn't surprise me in the least that David Beckham wants to leave Manchester United - after working with [England manager] Sven Goran Eriksson, going back to Sir Alex Fergusson must be like going back to prison."

Is your workplace stressful or stress-free, and why? Send us your comments.

Earlier this year I had a heart attack for which the usual underlying causes could not be blamed. Despite there being no proven link between stress and heart attacks, stress and long working hours were almost certainly the cause. I had a very time consuming job for an ISP - at my desk from 7:30, no lunch, left at 18:30 if I was lucky, and a couple more hours at home in the evenings. My heart attack gave me chance to realise that chasing a career is pointless if there is no quality of life to go with it. My employer is supportive (so far) of my new regime, but I can't help thinking that if I had not had a heart attack, they would have expected me to keep delivering more than was reasonable.
Peter, UK

Working for the NHS can be extremely stressful due to the workload that is around at the moment. We have to meet deadlines & targets, trying to minimise waiting lists. We have no perks in the NHS BUT we have a "stress policy" (big deal), then people wonder why nurses & allied health professionals are leaving.
Paul, UK

I used to work for a company where I ended up being the only member of the customer service team, as well as cover reception and any other odd jobs. After my manager retired in Nov 2001, I had no immediate manager to turn to for help or assistance. The last straw came at Christmas when I received no recognition or reward for 'holding the fort' for the past 12 months. I was so stressed and bitter about the whole experience, I felt the only way out was to find another job.
Lisa, UK

If you think the UK workplace is stressful, you should try the US. A six-day work week is quickly becoming the norm, and late evenings in the office are compulsory - in that if you don't spend a good 12 hours in the office (with a half hour to choke down lunch) it means that you aren't serious about building the company, and you're next in line to be laid off.
Rob, New York City

Being paid for overtime should be mandatory, so that like the minimum wage, it stops employers taking advantage of employees. Humans are not designed to sit at a desk for even 7 hours let alone 10+.
Spencer, UK

Not know what's going on in the company can be very stressful. Recently a For Sale sign appeared outside our office - fortunately it wasn't because the company was in trouble, but we were moving. No announcement or information came down from the top. Gossip and rumour circulated for ages until the truth came out.
Ian, Scotland

I start work when I want between 8.30 and 10.00, I lunch for an hour, and I finish around 5.00 to 5.30. I'm appreciated by everyone I work with and supported by my team and manager. My employer provides a gym, a pool, tennis courts, lunch every day, tea and cakes at 4.00 - all as part of my package. My salary isn't the highest, but its enough.
Steve, Oxford, UK

We can take a day's holiday at the drop of a hat (I did so yesterday, because our contract specifies that if the sun is shining, then we should be allowed to take the day off to go surfing). Because of their attitude to us, we are all happy to work extra time, without extra pay. They have a 'give and take' attitude, and all the staff respond to it.
Sal, UK

Here in Finland work attitudes are way more relaxed than in the UK. You can come in late, go home early, spend three hours in town on a sunny afternoon if you want, so long as you get the job done and are in for meetings.
Ben Cornwell, Finland

Our company has gone through a restructure and a takeover, which means job cuts and relocation. New location is inconvenient for everyone (apart from the directors), which will no doubt decrease our standard of living (longer commutes) and lower moral (inconsiderate company). Change has to be acceptable to the staff - without us, the directors would not be able to produce good results.
Lee, West Midlands, UK

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