Stephen Duff, managing director at HSF health plan, talks about how employers can combat workplace stress

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Workplace absence has evolved. It’s moved from a time where muscular-skeletal issues and accidents were the dominant cause of absence and injury, to today, where there is a whole new, and less obvious threat – stress. Mental health problems and stress have now become the biggest single cause of absence and long-term absence, and yet while I’d like to think there is a greater awareness and understanding of this distinctly unseen problem, my experience tells me otherwise. Shocking research from AXA PPP only last month revealed two-thirds of managers didn’t think stress was a ‘serious’ enough problem to warrant time off work.

I think there’s still an unhelpful perception that in the workplace we must all accept that ‘we will all have a bit of stress’ and that being the case, it’s something people need to get on with and ‘cope’ with better. But that’s a damaging and old-fashioned view. We know – from our own Employee Assistance Programme helpline – that stress is real, and can be pervasive, and that there’s a great deal of difference between being under a bit of pressure at work, every so often, to the feelings of utter despair and being unable to cope.

Stress frightens employers, because there is still a stigma about it, and many don’t know how to deal with it when it arises. It is also the case (and employers aren’t always receptive to this), that stress happens outside work, not just within it. It could come from family problems, money issues, or bereavement. Here employers see it as something that’s ‘not their problem’. However, it very quickly is their problem when performance can suddenly nose-dive, and their employees’ stress impacts others within the team. That’s why employers – whether they think stress exists or not – can’t afford to ignore the problem.


The good news, is that while stress can feel debilitating, employers can help by doing very simple things – like supporting flexible working and changing employees’ work patterns. Providing advice lines – as we do – are proven to be an invaluable tool. Good EAP providers support stressed employees with lines 24/7, with people they can talk to as many times as they like.

The key is their promotion. When there is no stigma attached, and when anonymity is preserved, we know advice lines get used (we even enable staff to call back the same person if they feel they have built a rapport with a particular counsellor). We know many people sometimes find it easier to talk to professional people they’ve never met before than even their partners or friends.

Thankfully more awareness about mental health issues is slowly starting to come through. HR’s latest buzz-phrase, ‘resilience’ is starting to get more currency – a technique (and training plan), that is designed to help people learn how to deal with stress before it swamps them. Anything that helps is a good thing, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the only solution. A recent High court decision (where a high flying B&Q manager wanted to claim for damages after a second period of stress-related absence) sensibly decided that employers cannot reasonably be able to foresee stress happening if there are adequate processes in place, and staff are made aware of the support they can get.

I feel this is a good situation to have been reached. It recognises that stress can come from anywhere, in any job, and at any time, but that as long as employers have a robust plan for preparing for, and managing stress as it happens, that is all they can realistically be expected to do.

Stress and mental health is a complex and far from understood condition. But the fact is, that as the NHS will increasingly become stretched, employers need to take up the mantle. Good HRDs will often instinctively know of the value of providing help to people. Often, the harder conversation is selling-in anti-stress measures to more ROI-hungry FDs. But the impact of staff being off with long-term stress is now largely uncontested, so there really is no excuse. Remember when Antonio Horta-Osorio, the boss of Lloyds, took a highly-publicised three-month break due to stress in 2012? After time away he’s now back to leading himself and the bank back to health – which is a pretty good advert for showing that help does work, and actually brings back people even stronger.