Work-related stress and the future

The news loves reports. A ready-made headline, of a 27% rise in this or a 42% fall in that, or one in three teenagers doing one thing or four in five pensioners doing the other.

I tend to take such stuff with a pinch of salt, knowing that there are often two beneficiaries of surveys and reports, and they are the media organisation with the space to fill and the marketing organisation with the thing to sell.

Still, I did pay attention when the report about skyrocketing work-related stress in Ireland crossed my gaze in the radio news bulletins first thing this morning.

The Economic and Social Research Institute reported that the figures more than doubled from 8% of the workforce in 2010 to 17% in 2015.

Among the stark figures were:

  • The Irish figure of 17% was still lower than the 19% average across Europe (based on data from the European Working Conditions Survey carried out in 2010 and 2015)
  • Workers faced with emotional demands (dealing with angry customers, or being forced to hide their feelings) were 21 times more likely to suffer stress than those who were not
  • Only 40% of Irish companies have policies in place to address workplace stress

The health implications of stress include cardio-vascular disease and depression. (I can’t say I developed any cardio-vascular disease, but I had several doses of heavy depression during my time in 9-to-well-after-5 roles.)

Other consequences of work stress, the report say, include absenteeism, increased job turnover and reduced morale. (I definitely saw all of those at close quarters too.)

The problem of work-related stress is not just created by the employer

The problem is not all on the side of employers or management, although they should definitely shoulder their share of the responsibility for fixing it.

I was an employee during that timeframe, and I was stressed to my eyeballs on plenty of days, but I don’t think I ever even considered suggesting it with any of my employers.

Why that might have been, I can’t say for sure. It could be that the avenues to facilitate such a discussion either did not exist or were not well advertised.

It could also be that I was just very fearful of being judged as weak or incompetent. Sucking it up and getting on with the tasks in hand seemed like the only option, even if the task list only ever expanded.

What I do know now is that I was not weak or incompetent, and I also know now that so many people were experiencing similar feelings and, like me, chose to keep those feelings to themselves.

Technology and stress

Technology also plays a significant role. The smartphone arrived with the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad followed in 2010, bringing with them the almost-always-on email inbox, which was liable to buzz with new work messages at all hours of the day and night.

In addition, increasingly distributed or remote workforces means many more companies now operate on a 16- or 18-hour workdays spread across multiple timezones.

The one certainty about all this is that it will take a combination of imaginative leadership, robust processes, engaged employees and, ideally, businesses with a mission above and beyond bare profit to reduce work-related stress for everyone. (It will definitely take more than a few fruit baskets and an office beer-keg…)

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