Focus on stress at work to grow

Tolerance of workplace stress is falling, as a new survey suggests Kiwi workers are increasingly falling prey to stress-related illnesses.

An international survey by workplace provider firm Regus found 60 per cent of New Zealand respondents were seeing more stress-related illnesses at work, such as headaches and panic attacks.

A third said they were having difficulty sleeping because of work worries and a quarter were worried about losing their jobs.

Forty-three per cent said family and friends had noticed they are stressed by work, and nearly two-thirds thought flexible work practices would help.

The study surveyed 65 New Zealanders among more than 20,000 people in 95 countries.

Employers and lawyers were divided on the figures, but agreed that that with new health and safety legislation looming, workplace stress was set to become a bigger issue.

Bill Rosenberg, policy director at the Council of Trade Unions, said workplace stress was a "sleeper issue" in New Zealand.

Low pay, uncertainty of work, high staff churn and long working hours were no doubt contributing to the stress, he said.

"People are being pushed quite hard in their jobs, and about a third of workers are working more than 40 hours . . . Quite a lot are working more than one job."

David Lowe of the Employers and Manufacturers Association agreed stress had been high following the global financial crisis.

"We probably all know someone who has lost their job. It's relatively common to get information from management to say all is not rosy."

But he did not think stress in the workplace was any higher than in people's busy lives generally.

Employment lawyer Jennifer Mills said the survey reflected what she had heard anecdotally.

Increased travel, a greater blurring between work and personal life, and the ability for staff to be "on call" around the clock all appeared to be part of it, she said.

"However, when employee stress is as prevalent as is indicated by the study, it is easy to see how many employers would put employee stress in the "too hard basket" and assert that a certain amount of stress . . . is simply part and parcel of a modern day working relationship."

Another employer lawyer, Susan Hornsby-Geluk, agreed stress levels were going up as firms downsized and demands on employees increased.

However, she cautioned against using the words "stress"' and "bullying" too loosely.

"I think you need to treat these statistics with some caution given that people have different perceptions of what might constitute stress."

Hornsby-Geluk said stress was already considered a workplace hazard under existing laws.

However, the new health and safety bill going through Parliament would potentially raise the bar.

Penalties would be stiffer and the new health and safety regulator, WorkSafe New Zealand, would be more active about investigating unsafe workplaces.

"There'll be a stronger watch on employers and therefore more incentives to comply with the rules."

Hornsby-Geluk said it would be interesting to know how many people suffering stress at work reported it to their employer, as they were legally obliged to do.

"There are some obvious physical manifestations of stress which an employer is expected to be able to identify and do something about.

"But quite often a person might present relatively normally and it's very difficult for an employer to identify."

The new Health and Safety Bill before Parliament is expected to come into force in April next year.


Steps for minimising the risk and effect of stress-related claims:

Establish a policy on stress

Monitor workloads and sick leave

Educate managers on symptoms and risks of workplace stress

Require employees to report stress

Include a medical assessment clause in employment agreement

Regular appraisals to communicate expectations, and to deal with issues as they arise

Act on complaints promptly

Offer EAP (employee assistance programme) counselling

Signs of employee stress: High levels of absenteeism and staff turnover

Low morale

High use of grievance procedures

Low quality work and productivity

Irritable or odd behaviour, depression in individuals

High or higher accident and illness rates

High or increased customer complaints or loss of business

Increased use of employee counselling

Source: Susan Hornsby-Geluk