Stress at work is spiralling out of control, with many employees in danger of completely burning out, it was claimed yesterday. A survey warned that one in four of those in professions such as teaching, social work and the police are suffering from serious stress. In other occupations up to 15 per cent of staff have problems.
‘People who need workplace counselling show signs of psychological distress equivalent to that found in out-patient psychiatric hospitals,’ said Professor John McLeod of Abertay University, Dundee.
He said the culture which gives employees and bosses the longest working hours in Europe must change or Britain will ‘break down’. His study of 10,000 workers found that those in the private sector are suffering from the requirement to deliver higher and higher productivity per person.
In the public sector – particularly in the NHS – staff are being asked to take on more responsibility with fewer resources. Professor McLeod said: ‘This is not just a minor worry any more. It can be a serious crisis in people’s lives.’. He said the problem was no longer confined to management and now affected office workers and manual workers.
Undiagnosed anxiety conditions now cause more absences from work than traditional complaints such as backache, hangovers and stomach trouble.
His report, for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, claims counselling can reduce the incidence of office-related stress by half. Countering stress boosts performance and cuts the number of sick days taken.
Professor McLeod warned that workplace anxiety will not go away unless Britain learns how to offer help to staff. But he said the British ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude often prevents people admitting how awful their workplace is.
Psychologist Dr Michael Reddy, of the counselling firm ICAS, added: ‘Over stress is a time bomb ticking away in the basement of UK plc. It is not just a question of shopfloor versus management as the TUC suggests.
‘In this cost and corner-cutting culture we are all in the firing line.’
Business groups, however, were not convinced by the report.
Ruth Lea, of the Institute of Directors, said: ‘People should really get things in perspective. I do get irritated by this. Most people are comfortable at work and often stress is just part and parcel of a job. ‘There may be people who are too stressed but this can be addressed. It is usually a sign of bad management which can be changed.’
Union leaders claim work-related stress is a serious issue which could soon be regarded as deadly as cancer and heart disease. A record 516 new cases were dealt with in 1999, up a quarter on the year before. Last year Janice Howell, a primary school teacher who claimed stress drove her to two nervous breakdowns, was awarded £250,000. Mrs Howell’s union, the NAS/UWT, revealed it has at least 120 similar cases pending, with claims that could run into millions.