Treasury Today Country Profiles in association with Citi

Combating the number one workforce risk: stress

A clenched fist

Stress is a harmful force in the corporate workplace and studies have shown that stress levels amongst workers are increasing. What are the triggers of workplace stress and how can you look to tackle it?

In his bestselling biography of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson revealed that Jobs would often soak his feet in the toilet to relieve stress, something he joked was ‘not too soothing for his colleagues’. Whilst certainly an alternative method of relieving stress, what the anecdote highlights is that stress in the workplace is an issue for everyone – from the CEOs of the world’s biggest companies right down to their workers.

And a study released recently by global workforce providers Regus highlights that, across the world, stress levels in the corporate workplace are higher than ever. Just over half of all respondents (53%) globally claimed that their stress levels are higher than five years ago. At a local level, 57% of workers in the US claimed they were more stressed, while in the UK this number was below the global average (48%). In Asia Pacific, the numbers of workers with greater stress levels was higher – with 66% of workers in Hong Kong, 63% of the workforce in Malaysia, and 55% in Singapore claiming they were more stressed.

Stress has been highlighted as the number one risk to workforces globally and its impact can be detrimental across numerous areas. Firstly, the health of the workforce can be badly affected. A study conducted in the UK by the British Heart Foundation found that increased stress levels cause workers to eat less, smoke more, drink more alcohol, and exercise less.

“It is not only the health of the worker that is impacted by high stress levels but so is the health of the company,” says Dr. Rajeshree Parekh, Asia Pacific Director for Health and Corporate Wellness at Towers Watson, a leading global professional services company. “We have seen, through our research, that there is lower engagement from workers with higher stress levels, causing productivity to decrease. Also, absence levels increase in stressed workers who on average take 4.6 sick days a year compared to 2.6 for less stressed workers.”

Causes of stress in the workplace

Dr. Parekh is keen to highlight that stress is a complex, multi-faceted issue – the cause of which cannot be attributed to one factor alone. “Stress isn’t only created in the workplace, it may come from issues at home, health problems and financial issues to name but a few,” she says. “But given the amount of time we spend at work and the pressure this places on us, it has a big impact.” So what in the workplaces causes stress most often?

Table 1: Employers and employees view on the causes of stress

  Employer View Employee View
Lack of work/life balance (excessive workloads and/or long hours) 1 5
Inadequate staffing (lack of support, uneven workload or performance in group) 2 1
Technologies that expand availability during nonworking hours (e.g. mobiles, notebooks) 3 10
Unclear or conflicting job expectations 4 3
Fears about job loss, too much change 5 7
Lack of supervisor support, feedback and not living up to their word 6 6
Fears about benefit reduction/loss (e.g. lower value or loss of health care coverage, reduction in retirement benefits) 7 9
Organisational culture, including lack of teamwork, tendency to avoid accountability and assign blame to others 8 4
Low pay (or low increases in pay) 9 2
Lack of technology, equipment and tools to do the job 10 8

Source of employee data: 2013 Towers Watson Global Benefits Attitude Survey (GBAS), completed by 5,070 U.S. workers at companies with 1,000 or more employees.

According to research by Towers Watson (see table 1) the top three things stressing workers out are inadequate staffing, low pay and unclear and conflicting job expectations. “Workers are essentially asking their employers to support them, pay them and direct them,” says Parekh. There is a dichotomy however between what workers cite as being the key drivers of stress to what employers believe causes stress. From the employers perspective stress is caused by a lack of work life balance, inadequate staffing and failing technology. “There are some fairly significant disconnects between the employees and the employers that this study highlights,” says Parekh, “this can make tackling the causes of stress particularly challenging.”

What’s the answer?

“Our research shows that, often, when somebody is stressed due to work they will combat this by working harder and working longer hours,” says Dr Parekh. “Of course, this ultimately has a negative impact because by working longer and harder an individual is placing further pressure upon themselves.” For Parekh, stepping away from the current environment is a simple, but effective, way to temporarily relieve stress. Exercise and taking deep breaths are also good short-term fixes for workers.

A change of scenery altogether may also be an option. Working from home can be a great way for workers to recharge their batteries and become more productive. It must be noted however, that working from home raises the issue of the lines between work and home life becoming increasingly blurred. While not cited as being among the top three reasons for high stress levels, feeling like you are constantly working and your home is becoming a workplace can add fuel to the fire and reduce the places of escape that workers have.

Whilst short-term fixes help, they don’t relieve the issue in the longer term. “There is no easy answer to alleviating the causes of work stress in the long run,” says Parekh. “Ultimately it is an individual issue and individuals need to build up a resilience to the pressure caused by work through finding healthy ways to manage this. This may come naturally to some, but to most in the workplace, it is a learnt ability.”

An employee shouldn’t be alone in this quest, however, and the creation of a lower stress environment should be facilitated by the company too. “Companies should look to alleviate the stress among the workforce by tackling the issues that cause it. To do this, there firstly needs to be a clear line of communication created so that the reasons employees feel stressed are addressed,” says Parekh. Once the causes are identified, Parekh says that Health and Productivity (H&P) programmes should be created to holistically address the issues. “In addition, management should also be put through training to ensure that they are not directly impacting the stress levels of their staff and understand the issues,” she says.

Speak up

“I don’t think that stress is a taboo in the workplace anymore,” says Parekh. “Employees recognise that stress is a big issue in the workplace and it can no longer be swept under the carpet and ignored. But I do believe that there still exists a reluctance from workers in Asia to speak up if they are feeling stressed,” says Parekh.

This point is underlined by the fact that many companies are now beginning to offer H&P programmes, but that the use of them by the workforce is limited. “Of course, without speaking up, nobody can help address the issues that cause stress. Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the impact that the health of their workforce can have on the business, so workers should not be afraid to speak up.”