Work stress: ‘major social problem’

The sharp rise in work stress in Britain is now becoming a major social problem in the current economic climate, warns a new report published by the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences.

The sharp rise in work stress in Britain is now becoming a major social problem in the current economic climate, warns a new report published by the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences.
The new study, Stress at Work, has found that even employees who have hung onto their jobs during the financial meltdown are suffering under the pressure of downsizing and restructuring by companies.
Prof Tarani Chandola, author of the report and medical sociologist at Manchester University, discovered an increase of 4-6% in work ‘stressors’, such as workload, conflict, job security and organisational change from spring 2009 to spring this year.
The new figure shows a massive rise compared to the previous 0.5-1% yearly increase since 1992.
”With attention focussed on people losing their jobs following Government cuts, it’s easy to forget the added pressure put on those still in employment who are often taking on extra duties and working longer hours,” said Prof Chandola.
Nearly half a million workers from the public sector are expected to lose their jobs, following the Government’s emergency budget and comprehensive spending review.  But forecasters have warned the real loss of jobs will be much higher than predicted.  Last week the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) warned the jobs loss is likely to register 1.6 million by 2015 because the private sector will be hit harder than the public sector once public spending is curtailed and VAT rises.
Job insecurity has rocketed in the public sector – almost a fifth of workers now think they are ‘likely’ to lose their jobs, a rise of 11% compared to spring last 2009.
And a quarter of workers have reported an increase in their hours – a rise of 7% since the recession in the public sector, and 2% in the private sector.

Bullying in the workplace
The effects on the atmosphere in workplaces have also been significant.  The study reveals a rise in the interpersonal conflict in the workplace, with 7% more public sector workers reporting bullying by managers in the past year, compared to 4% in the private sector.
The report claims employers are placing tighter controls on sick leave, forcing employees to attend work in poor health – turning up when poorly can lead to more long-term sick problems and result in even greater costs to society.
Prof Chandola said: ”Work stress has increased since 1992, especially for women.  In the past year these levels have risen at an alarming rate and there are no effective measures in place to prevent the situation worsening.
”Government and employers must take responsibility and measure, mitgate, monitor and act effectively before problems get out of control, with damage to the health of the workforce and the economy.”
Work stressors can fuel depression, anxiety, suicide and workplace injuries.  Previous research has shown they can lead to a 50% increase in the risk of heart disease.

Need for legislation?
The UK has no specific legislation on workplace stress, but there is a current voluntary code of practice outlined by the Health and Safety executive in 2004 and designed to guide employers in matters of work stress. 
But the British Academy claims there is ”little evidence” that the management standards previously cited by the Health and Safety Executive have reduced work stress.  ”Given the tougher economic environment after the 2008-9 recession, it is possible that these management standards may not be widely used or may become even less effective at reducing work stress,” warns the report.  ”The contribution of specific legislation on work stress and /or enforcement of this legislation to lower work stress in some European countries also needs to be investigated.”
Prof Duncan Gallie, chair of the British Academy working group which produced the report, said: ”The Scandinavian societies have taken a lead in developing forms of work organisation that are protective of employees’ psychological health.  The time has come, perhaps, to give serious policy consideration to how similar institutional developments could be encouraged in the UK.”





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