Since the dawn of time, human beings have been under pressure to sustain a living. Even Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble had to provide for their families. But recent perilous economic tides have ramped up the stress a couple of notches. From worry over daily essentials to mortgages and job security, both individuals and businesses have struggled to deal with the disparity between the cost of sustenance and the available income. And as a result of trying to do more with less, businesses are demanding more from their employees.
When these factors converge, build up and are sustained over a long period, workers are liable to reach a point of total burnout. Dr Jo Zagorska, a clinical psychologist, elaborates. “Burnout is a result of long-term stress that builds up to a point where it becomes unmanageable,” she says. “It can lead to periods of depression and anxiety because they’ve been living with a very high level of stress and it then tips over to a level they can’t manage.”
Whereas it was once assumed that reaching this state of utter exhaustion was the preserve of those only in the most senior of positions, burnout is becoming disturbingly common lower down the ranks. Indeed, a survey commissioned by Conference Genie (CG), the communications services provider, revealed that 41 is the average age at which the British professional hits the point of no return.
Simon Prince, managing director of CG, says the research is cause for alarm. “41 is about half way through a career,” he explains. “A 41-year-old would have a family and a lot more responsibilities than a person in their 20s and 30s and there is quite a big gap between when people say they’re going to burnout and when they’re looking to end their career. That strikes me as an incredibly worrying time to be burning out.”
Whilst the immediate impact of stress in the workplace may affect productivity and absence levels, Daniel Booth of Jelf, the insurance services provider, sheds some light on the longer term effects. “You risk losing good people altogether which will have a significant impact on your business’s success,” he says. He explains further that the employer also risks an expensive law-suit over long-tail liability, where the cause of harm to the employee may have occurred several years prior, and the effects have taken time to come to light.
With impending severe medical and financial consequences if diligent care is not taken, entrepreneurs and employers would be wise to identify the factors that can contribute to burnout and develop coping structures to help alleviate them. While most companies will have a form of stress management policy in place, when it comes to the wellbeing of their employees it seems managerial involvement should go beyond just what is printed in black and white.
It might seem like common sense, but the starting point is to create a good working environment – something which Webmart, the printing services company, has embedded in its ethos. “We don’t just focus on the financials,” says Richard Biltcliffe, marketing manager at the firm. “We try to maximise the emotional, intellectual and financial benefit of everybody who works here. We try to give people a challenge and make them want to come into work. If they’ve got a monkey on their back they won’t be as effective as they should be.”
Webmart has implemented several devices as support mechanisms for its ‘Webmarteers’. These include, amongst other things, a loading bay that has been reworked into their ‘Yorkshire room’. Decked out with astroturf, and with scenic views of Yorkshire papered onto the walls, the room functions as a space for yoga classes and barbeques. The company also has a number of financial schemes including an employee help scheme which provides up to £400 a year for personal problems in or outside of work.
“It’s all well and good having policies, and waving a piece of paper around,” says Biltcliffe. “But we try and create an environment that allows people to have little breakout spaces and manage their stress really.”
While it is commendable when an employer can offer these subsidies on health and stress relieving systems, Prince sympathises with the plight of small businesses where financial resources are more than a little limited. “It is difficult for small businesses to absorb these costs into the running of things, but they can find other ways to help and support people,” he says, and points to flexible working as an alternative. “We try to make sure, within reason, that staff have the flexibility and autonomy to work when they feel they’re able to work their best. That’s crucially important in getting value for money.”
Furthermore, Jill Miller, research advisor at the CIPD, says there’s no substitute for good people management. Lending an ear is often as effective as instigating pricey wellbeing programmes. “HR need to adopt an open culture where people feel like they can talk about any issues without feeling they might be penalised, or in case it impacts on their career with the organisation,” she says. Biltcliffe offers similar advice to business owners. “A good point of call is to have regular reviews with people,” he says. “You need to engender openness of communication where people are able to come to you with their concerns and woes. It’s a prudent thing to do for your business because that’s how you get most out of people.”
Effective people management will include scrutinising job roles in order to determine particularly stressful aspects or identify stress hotspots elsewhere in the business. This will help employers to create a balance with the less stressful elements of the employee’s role. Miller highlights the role of middle-managers in striking the right balance. “Line managers are the eyes and ears of the organisation,” she says. “[They] are key to the effective management of stress and spotting early warning signs of stress and mental health problems.”
She elaborates: “Stress and mental health problems can be difficult to spot because people will exhibit them in different ways. Managers need to know their workforce quite well in order to be able to spot any subtleties in behaviour change, such as somebody who is normally quite punctual turning up late to work. They need to get training around how to have quality conversations with people about these kinds of issues.”
Managing stress in the workplace should not focus solely on employee welfare but also on that of the leaders, adds Miller. “Often entrepreneurs put the success of the business front of mind because ultimately they’ve emotionally and financially invested in it, but really the question is can they lead the business if they’re not firing on all cylinders?”