Group risk roundtable: Economic influences on stress

If you read nothing else, read this…

• Stress is now the number one cause of long-term absence, according to the CIPD.
• Employers are concerned about presenteeism, whereby employees are remaining at work when they are ill because of fears about job security.
• Problems outside the workplace are a significant cause of employee absence.
• A variety of approaches, including line manager training, employee assistance programmes, stress awareness training and flexible working, can help to reduce stress levels in the workplace.

Economic problems have increased employees’ stress levels, so employers need to be alert to the symptoms and underlying causes, which are not always work-related, says Sam Barrett

Tough economic conditions are affecting employee health and wellbeing, as concerns about employment and financial security grow. Workplace stress is on the rise, with mental health-related issues key underlying factors.

Group Risk Development’s (Grid) 2011 employer research, published in March 2012, shows rising stress levels in the workplace. Katharine Moxham, Grid spokesperson, says: “For the third year running, the top cause of long-term absence is home and family issues, with stress-related mental health in second place.”

These two causes of absence now account for a larger proportion of long-term absence. Grid’s research, which polled 500 UK employers with up to 1,000 employees, found that home and family issues account for 19.7% of absences, with 15.1% attributed to stress-related mental ill-health.

Rising workplace stress is also a key finding in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) 2011 Absence management survey, published in February 2012. This found that, for the first time since the CIPD started compiling the survey in 1999, stress was the number one cause of long-term absence. In addition, nearly two-fifths of employers reported an increase in stress-related absence over the previous 12 months.

Stress is a also a growing cause of income protection claims. Moxham says mental illness has been the top cause of claims for at least the last two years, a finding that rings true with industry peers.

Steve Bridger, head of group risk at Aviva UK Health, says: “There is a much higher prevalence of mental health claims, which have overtaken musculoskeletal claims in the past few years.

“We are also seeing more complexity in these claims. There is often more than one reason for the claim, and people will respond differently to the various types of treatment. You do need to take a more considered approach to these claims.”

Anecdotal evidence of rising workplace stress among employers can be found at Informa UK. Linda Hilliard, UK reward manager at the publishing firm, says she has seen an increase in requests for details of the organisation’s employee assistance programme (EAP). “We do not have any statistics on this because it is a confidential service provided by our income protection insurer, but we are seeing more requests for areas such as debt counselling,” she says.

Requests for employee support

Sarah Page, research and specialist services officer at Prospect, is also seeing a rising number of requests for employee support. “There is greater demand for support, but we have also noticed a change in the type of support,” she says.

“In the past, most of the support we provided was about how to spot and deal with stress in the workplace, but employers and staff are now much clearer about what is causing concern.

“We have a lot of people asking for advice on managing finances, but also work-life concerns, such as a partner or spouse losing their job. We are having to be more creative about how we respond, too.”

Recognising the influence of external factors on staff absence is crucial. Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at EEF, says work-related stress is usually only a small part of the problem. “Family issues, financial problems, your health, your personality and whether you have friends to talk to can all make a difference to whether someone is stressed at work. It is much harder for an employer to deal with these problems,” he explains.

Harder still is an employer’s ability to recognise presenteeism, whereby employees remain at work despite not being well enough to do so.

Carolyn Wilkinson, senior benefits manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says: “Presenteeism is a concern.

Employees may be in work when they really should not be because of fears for their job security, and so on. Left untreated, this can lead to long-term absence.”

Providers and advisers are equally concerned about presenteeism. Chris Ford, director of group risk at Jelf Employee Benefits, calls it the ‘new absenteeism’. He warns that although employees may be more likely to stay in the workplace when ill, they are also more likely to claim for longer when they eventually activate their income protection policy.

Wilkinson is also concerned about the extent to which employees work beyond their paid hours to complete a task.

More employee training

So employers have their work cut out, which means more employee training, Wilkinson says. “It is really important that our line managers are able to recognise the symptoms of stress in the workplace. As presenteeism is more of an issue, it is essential to identify employees that are struggling as early as possible.”

EAPs, debt management sessions and stress awareness days can also provide valuable support to staff who are finding it hard to cope. Flexible working, meanwhile, can be used to help employees regain a work-life balance by allowing them to structure work around childcare, for example, .

At Prospect, a workplace campaign, WorkTime, YourTime, launched in January, looked at how staff could ensure a work-life balance, as well as providing information about job sharing, home working and career breaks.

Group risk benefits, particularly income protection, also have a role to play. As well as supporting employees who are unable to work, many insurers provide support to line managers and HR, helping them identify workplace stress and provide employees with the tools to deal with it.

Bridger says this is having a positive effect on mental health claims management. “The combination of interventions and support alongside working with the employer and the line manager is starting to show much stronger return to work,” he says.

“It is tougher, but by helping people help one another get back to and stay in work, we are seeing results.”

Read more from the Group risk roundtable