Don't close your eyes to workplace stress

IT's long-hours, deadline-driven culture makes it a breeding ground for stress. Both employers and staff could pay a high price...

Increased workloads, changes at work, staff cuts, long hours and bullying are taking their toll, not just on IT staff, but on their employers, the latest research by the TUC reveals.

More than 58% of staff complained of workplace stress this year, a 2% increase from 2003. And every year employers lose 6.5 million working days to work-based stress, costing the economy an estimated £7bn, the TUC survey found.

The Health and Safety Commission is so concerned about the impact of stress at work that it plans to monitor high-risk companies to ensure they are meeting their legal obligations. Last week it issued new guidelines to help employers identify and manage stress before it turns into a serious problem.

The Management Standards for Work Related Stress provide a step-by-step guide to help employers monitor and reduce stress. A toolkit helps managers conduct risk management audits, and allows them to benchmark stress levels against the rest of their industry.

Peter Skyte, national secretary at trade union Amicus, has seen the negative effects that too much stress can have on IT staff. Tight project deadlines, lack of resources and the pressures of outsourcing can leave IT professionals prone to stress, unless their work is properly managed.

"There is a long working hours culture. Lots of companies in IT, more than other sectors, ask people to waive their rights to the maximum 48-hour working week," he said.

The problem can be particularly acute in IT services companies, which face market pressure to cut costs on projects. They can often underestimate the staffing requirements, said Skyte. And IT professionals who find themselves transferred to IT services companies under outsourcing deals can find their workload increases enormously.

"You get macho cultures in some workplaces, where you are seen as a wimp if you take time off, or you are not part of the team, or pulling your weight. The complaint is levelled against the individual, rather than being seen as the responsibility of the organisation," said Skyte.

Yet employers that fail to monitor and deal with stress run the risk not only of losing good IT staff at a time when the industry is facing new skills shortages, but of legal action and potential prosecution for breaching health and safety laws.

The law on stress is complex, said Paul Coppin, a partner at law firm Eversheds and a specialist in stress claims, but it can be summed up simply.

"Every organisation is going to have people in it who will suffer stress from time to time. That is not in itself a bad thing. A level of stress that gets people to do their best is not a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing when it makes people ill. The issue is whether an employer is liable for that," he said.

"What it comes down to is this: if an employer knew or ought to have known that a particular employee was or was likely to become ill as a result of his work, they might be liable for that illness."

In practice, it is not always the people you would think were at risk of stress that are the most vulnerable. The guy responsible for the office photocopying can suffer more acute stress than a hard pressed head of IT, said Coppin.

"IT is a stressful role. But you do not have to be in a stressful role to become stressed. What it normally amounts to is a lack of control over your own working environment, the amount of work you do, the pace of it, and how you do your work. That combines with other factors, such as feeling unsupported," he said.

Sometimes people might be coping with highly stressful jobs but an event outside work, such as a bereavement or marriage break-up, tips the balance and pushes them over the edge.

Difficult bosses are another common cause of stress. In the IT department, people are often promoted because of their strong technical skills, but their people management abilities can be lacking, said Carole Spiers, a stress management consultant.

"Managers are usually under pressure themselves, so they use employees as a dumping ground. They say 'let's get rid of this', because they have stuff being dumped on them," she said.

If you are feeling overstressed, it is vital that you do not suffer in silence, said Spiers.

"The days of saying yes, yes, yes have gone. You have to learn to say no. You have to learn to speak up to your manager, which does not mean you are refusing, but your manager needs to know what is realistic for them to be giving to you," she said.

"If they are giving you a workload that is unrealistic, they need to be aware of the situation. The only person that can know this is the employee, and it is very much the employee's responsibility to speak to their manager."

For employers, there are tell-tale signs that indicate the early stages of stress. Staff staying too late at night, staff coming in late in the morning and signs of alcohol abuse should ring alarm bells. Stressed employees appear less vibrant and may have difficulty concentrating or engaging.

Avoiding stress needs good communication, and there are no shortcuts, said Spiers.

"You have to communicate with employees to see how they are managing. And it is a two-way dialogue from employee to employer, and from employer to employee," she said.

The commission guidelines should act as an encouragement to employers to take the problem of stress seriously. Although the guidelines are voluntary, employers that fail to follow them could find themselves liable. The guidelines will soon be viewed by the courts as standard good practice, said Coppin.

What to do if you are getting stressed

  • Try to identify the causes and what you can do to make things better. Ideally, tell your manager at an early stage. If your stress is work-related, this will give them the chance to help and prevent the situation getting worse. Even if it is not work-related, they may be able to do something to reduce some of your pressure.  
  • If the source of pressure is your line manager, find out what procedures are in place to deal with this. If none exist, talk to your employee representative, human resources department or counselling service. 
  • Many people are reluctant to talk about stress at work due to the stigma attached to it. They fear they will be seen as weak. But stress is not a weakness, and it can affect anyone.  

Source: Health and Safety Executive

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