It's shouldn't be a surprise. The trends have been going this way for while and the current climate is difficult to say the least. But what was notable and new about the recent announcement from CIPD (you can read the news story from People Management here) was that stress is now the number one cause of long-term cause for both non-manual and manual workers.
As ever with stress stories, there was a lot of media coverage, including national radio phone-ins like that on radio 5. Understandably but frustratingly, the coverage mainly seems to focus on individuals / employees and whether they are really stressed or 'playing the stress card' and malingering.
Of course, it's true that some employees will do that (though most people off work with stress would far rather be at work and doing a good job - being off work long-term is miserable; it's bad for your mental health and doesn't do much for your future job prospects either!). And recently I have even come across alarming evidence of serial 'stress litigators' who will play the stress card in a mercenary, manipulative way in one organization after another to their own, very considerable financial advantage.
However, this completely misses the most important point for employers and managers, which is around organizational risks and the massive costs associated with the poor management of stress. The evidence is abundant and clear that these risks and associated costs can by hugely reduced by concerted organizational action. I've been fortunate to be able to see this graphically illustrated in data gathered from very similar organizations in the same sector.
Those organizations with the lowest stress and better quality of working life had massively lower absence, especially long-term absence. And other important well-being outcomes such as staff turnover, attraction of talent and employee engagement showed similar, hugely significant differences. Action to prevent stress and improve well-being has, it turns out, an enormous return-on-investment.
This doesn't happen by accident. It never does. High performing organizations had leaders and senior management teams that got together and deliberately set out to create a culture and working environment that promoted well-being at work.
What sorts of things did they do? Well, usually, lots of things, large and small, over a period of years; all the things that improve the quality of working life. They looked at physical working environments and made improvements or built new ones. They improved communication in multiple ways (vertical and horizontal), including steps to improve openness and transparency so everyone could see what was going on. They improved organizational and management behaviour through OD and management development. They made sure all employees could develop, personally and professionally. They improved and raised awareness about support structures, so if people had problems they knew where they could go for help. And a whole host of other things that made a difference.
There is perhaps an element of luck, if it is luck, with regard to the having a team of people at the top at the same time willing to work together, over several years to create the kind of organization they really want.
So the real story, certainly the one I want to tell, is about the competitive advantage that comes from taking co-ordinated and concerted action to prevent and reduce stress and improve the quality of working life.
Business Psychologist, Alan Bradshaw, is a specialist in the fields of stress management and the management of wellbeing at work.