The Institute of Management’s Karen Charlesworth looks at one of the UK’s biggest economic problems: work stress.
Achieving the right balance between too much and too little pressure is an integral challenge of working. Most managers expect their job to be demanding, and to include occasional, limited periods of high pressure – for example, when deadlines have to be met or during extraordinary circumstances, such as relocation while new systems are being implemented.

What are the implications for employers?

A succession of high awards have followed employees’ claims for damages after they suffered work-related stress, particularly in the latter half of 1999 and early 2000. Some have exceeded £200 000. In national terms, the Health and Safety Executive has estimated that inefficiencies caused by stress in the workplace cost 10% of the UK’s gross domestic product in 1998.

What are the causes of stress?

Organisational changes often challenge individuals and the way they work. Research into workplace stress, carried out by the Institute of Management in 1999 for its “Taking the Strain” project, found that nearly one-quarter of organisations had merged or been taken over in the past year. One-third faced the challenge of expanding into new markets. Nearly four in 10 of the managers surveyed reported the introduction of a programme to change the focus of activities or the company culture. Nearly half were facing the direct impact of new technology, in some cases leading to increased workloads.

On a personal level, managers identified the top five factors that had caused them unreasonable pressure in the previous 12 months. These were:

  • meeting deadlines

  • constant interruptions

  • lack of support

  • incompetent senior managers

  • poor internal communications.

Bullying was a further source of stress, with one in 10 executives saying he or she had experienced bullying and intimidation on a regular basis. Nearly three-quarters of managers said stress adversely affected their performance at work, as well as their home life, health and enjoyment of life in general.

Some pressures are outside your control, in which case you must learn to accept and manage them

Yet in today’s macho work culture, few admit to being unable to cope with their stress levels – and may even be guilty of transferring their stress on to other colleagues.

Symptoms of stress

Tiredness, disturbed sleep, headaches, loss of temper and lowered sex drive were among the signs of stress reported by executives in the institute’s survey. Nearly three-quarters had received criticism from family or friends about their long hours of work, and over one-quarter felt they needed some help in dealing with stress (compared with one in five in 1996).

Dealing with personal stress

Individuals need to look at how their own working patterns and lifestyle may be adding to the pressures they face. For example:

  • Remove or reduce external pressures – but if they are outside your control, you must learn to accept and manage them.

  • Delegate tasks, with clear instructions and expectations.

  • Be sure that you manage your time productively and that you arrange periods when you can work without being disturbed.

  • If you have domestic responsibilities that are difficult to manage, consider buying in outside help with cleaning, laundry or gardening.

  • Any activity that leads you to forget about work may help.

What can the company do?