The stress epidemic

This is the seventh in a series of articles produced for the Future of Work Hub by Lewis Silkin LLP looking at the stress epidemic.

Workplace stress is hardly a new phenomenon, but there are strong indications that 21st century changes in the world of work are exacerbating employee stress levels in a variety of different ways.

A survey published by the CIPD in 2016 found that nearly a third of organisations had seen an increase in stress-related absence over the previous year (with only a small minority reporting a decrease). During the same period, two-fifths of organisations – particularly larger ones – had seen an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Official government statistics support this alarming picture. According to latest estimates from the UK’s labour force survey, the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015/16 was 488,000. Stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill-health cases in 2015/16 and 45% of working days lost due to ill health.

Evidently this is a global trend, despite a lack of empirical data about the scope and nature of the problem in most countries. A report in 2016 by the International Bar Association’s Global Employment Institute, based on responses from 58 nations, revealed that many of them had recorded increasing absenteeism from work due to workplace stress and mental health issues.

Employers are increasingly at risk of facing legal actions from employees based on workplace stress. In the UK, these might range from employment tribunal claims for disability discrimination or unfair dismissal, to claims in the civil courts for stress-related psychiatric injury. 

So far as the causes of stress are concerned, there has always been a range of contributing factors, including: the way work is designed and organised; job insecurity; excessive workloads; poor pay and conditions; management failings; workplace culture, including bullying; and lack of autonomy. But what “new” reasons can we identify in the modern world of work to account for the apparent escalation of the problem?

One perhaps obvious factor is that working hours are getting longer, with international businesses increasingly adopting a 24/7 culture and demanding that workers are on duty to deal with time differences and customer expectations. The TUC reported in 2015 that the number of people in the UK working more than 48 hours a week had increased by 15% in the previous five years, with 3.4 million employees working excessive hours. This is, of course, in the context of the ability for employers to ask employees to “opt out” of the 48-hour working week being widely regarded as a key element of labour market flexibility and economic competitiveness.

A 2015 report by the EU agency Eurofound – the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions – found that changes in the content and organisation of work in recent decades had resulted in an “intensification” of work. The report highlighted the significant proportion of workers who are confronted with a very high level of work demands, such as working to tight deadlines, needing to work faster, frequent interruptions or simply having too much work to do. These types of behaviours can have a detrimental impact on mental health, absenteeism and productivity.

Related to this is the “always on” working culture that technological developments such as email and smartphones have created. According to recent research by the CIPD, 40% of people check work emails at least five times a day outside of working hours, while almost a third say remote access to work means they can never fully switch off.

Another common issue, particularly in organisations with a culture of long working hours, is “presenteeism” – turning up for work when unwell. A recent Work Foundation report found that presenteeism could account for as much, if not more, of a loss in productivity than sickness absence, while the 2016 CIPD survey mentioned above found evidence that presenteeism is associated with stress-related absences and mental health problems.

As mentioned in part 5, the shift towards more extensive remote working and distanced employee relations is another contributing factor. Homeworkers become isolated and suffer stress and anxiety through lack of regular support – something that can be difficult for managers to be aware of remotely.

A further reason accounting for rising levels of stress might be the highly publicised rise of zero hours contracts and the “gig economy”.  As highlighted in part 3, these working arrangements have been associated with job insecurity and growing demands on workers. The unpredictable way in which these arrangements are managed by some employers can also contribute to unhealthy levels of stress.

The Good Work review, published in July 2017, noted that if individuals “have no guarantee of work from week to week or even day to day, this not only affects their immediate ability to pay the bills but can have further, long-lasting effects, increasing stress levels and putting a strain on family life”.


As the world of work evolves, the harmful effects of workplace stress will continue to be a developing issue and businesses need to think creatively and adapt in order to mitigate its impact. 

This is, of course, one aspect of a broader picture in which changing demographics and technological advances will continue to put pressure on traditional “9 to 5” working arrangements, challenging employers to think differently about how and where their employees work. Organisations that promote policies and behaviours which support good work and engagement are likely to be able to maintain a healthy and productive workforce, putting them in a better position to attract sought after talent.

This reflects one of the main themes of the aforementioned Good Work review, which places great emphasis on the importance of “quality work”. It makes the point that, while quality jobs increase participation rates and economic performance, low quality work reduces well-being and productivity and may also detrimentally affect worker health.

There is indeed growing research demonstrating that positive work cultures are more productive. It has been shown, for example, that there is a correlation between poor leadership behaviour and heart disease in employees. While some might assume that stress and high-pressure push employees to perform better, that fails to take into account the costs incurred, in terms of work days lost, workplace accidents and healthcare expenditure. High-stress environments can also result in employee disengagement, which leads to absenteeism, costly errors and lower productivity and profitability.     

As stress becomes more widely recognised as a major problem for employers and their bottom line, an increasing number of organisations will be investing in wellness initiatives for their staff. These range from training programmes for managers and staff on topics such as managing time, conflict and stress, to advice on lifestyle and diet. Some employers arrange exercise initiatives, such as yoga classes or discounted gym membership, or offer healthy eating options in a staff canteen.

More crucially, it is becoming far more commonplace for organisations to have robust, formal policies on stress management and to train their line managers and HR personnel on identifying and handling issues concerning workplace stress. An important aspect of this is the availability of clear routes for employees to raise any concerns - for example, through a confidential health/wellbeing hotline operating in tandem with the employer’s grievance procedure.

As noted in part 3, flexible working will continue to become more widespread. In any event, employers increasingly appreciate the benefits of supporting alternative ways of working as a means of helping staff balance their work and home lives, thereby reducing stress.  Official data suggests that businesses adopting more flexible working practices have seen an improvement in relationships with employees, with 40% reporting a boost in productivity and 38% seeing a drop in staff absences. 

Finally, there is likely to be government intervention in relation to workplace stress over time, given the demonstrable impacts that it has on absence rates and economic productivity. Following the introduction of the “Fit for Work” scheme in 2015, we are likely to see further policy initiatives, or even legal reforms, designed to improve the way health and wellbeing is managed for those in work. 

This might involve consideration of legislative interventions adopted in other countries. In Japan, for example, there has been a new requirement since 2015 for employers to conduct "stress checks" as a way of mitigating against work-related mental illnesses. France introduced a “right to disconnect” from January 2017, requiring employers with 50 or more staff to reach a collective bargaining agreement under which employees can disconnect from digital work tools (emails, intranet etc) during rest time and holidays. If no such agreement is concluded, the employer must draw up a “charter”, after consulting the works council or staff delegates, defining how to exercise the right to disconnect and implementing training for management and employees on the reasonable use of digital tools. Germany does not have such legislation, but some companies (e.g. Volkswagen) and government departments have banned telephone calls and emails outside working hours.



Watch out for the next article in the series will look at managing technology, personal data and privacy.  To read the introduction to the report which gives an overview of the impact of three megatrends - globalisation, technology and changing demographics - on the world of work, see the introduction to the series.

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