Are our workplaces more stressed than ever before?

Sep 26, 2017

Workplace stress is the great scourge of modern society, with too much research showing just how prevalent it is. But although stress is increasing, there are plenty of steps leaders can take to ensure stress levels at their workplace remain low.

This article originally appeared on Fairfax National Mastheads. Credit: Alexandra Cain/Fairfax Syndication’

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicate 45 per cent of Australians between the ages of 16 and 85 will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.  And statistics out of Beyond Blue suggest 17 per cent of depression in women and 13 per cent of depression in men can be attributed to career strain, such as from jobs with high demands and low control.

Reventure Australia is a think tank that conducts research and stimulates public debate about workplace matters. Managing director Dr Lindsay McMillan, a respected Australian academic, leads its research program.

Research that he conducted in 2016 found that the way we work is changing, largely as a result of a more interconnected global economy and the ever-increasing rate of complexity at work.

According to Reventure Australia’s research, more than half of all Australian workers agree increasing change and complexity at work are leading to job dissatisfaction and more frequent high levels of stress at work.

Additionally, the research found more than 40 per cent of workers see the shift to a more connected global economy having a significant impact on the way they work. This is correlated with frequent high stress levels at work.

Looking into the future, stress levels are only expected to continue to rise. According to research undertaken this year by recruitment firm Robert Half, three quarters of Australian CFOs think employee stress levels will rise over the next three years.

The study names the top three causes of rising stress levels as: growing workloads (61 per cent), increased business expectations (52 per cent) and short deadlines (37 per cent).

Another piece of research, The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia, delivers insights into what’s really going on in workplace mental health in Australia. The research was conducted for Beyond Blue by TNS Social Research, an independent research agency.

Findings were based on interviews with 1,126 people. Of these, 85 were conducted with senior leaders such as CEOs, managing directors and HR managers. The remaining 1041 interviews were with employees, including a mix of lower management and other staff.

The research estimates mental health conditions that are not treated cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year, including $4.7 billion as a result of time taken off work, $6.1 billion in presenteeism – which is where people may be physically but not mentally at work – and $146 million in compensation claims.

Additionally, 91 per cent of people surveyed said workplace mental health is important; higher than the percentage of people who think physical health is important (88 per cent).

However, when it comes to employees’ opinions of the state of their workplace mental and physical health, physical health comes out on top. The research showed 76 per cent of respondents think their workplaces are physically healthy. In contrast, just over half (52 per cent) of respondents said their workplace was mentally healthy.

It’s sobering evidence. According to Nikki Fogden-Moore, who runs executive coaching business The Vitality Coach, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization has identified occupational stress as a global epidemic.

“The strange thing is flexible working hours and so-called modern workplace solutions do not seem to be helping stress levels,” says Fogden-Moore.

“The majority of employees are struggling to juggle work responsibilities, performance and know how to effectively balance their week for sustainable personal and career success.”

The solution, according to Fogden-Moore, is to empower staff at all levels of an organisation to think about the best way to achieve a good work/life blend.

“Managers need to learn how to plan their weeks so that responsibilities and goals are equally distributed across the team and set out in as much detail as possible. I do this with high performing companies that have a vast number of virtual work teams and also offer flexible hours,” she says.

According to Fogden-Moore, aside from helping staff to manage their work commitments, it is also essential to provide a framework for people to master their free time.

“A workplace landscape that supports good mental health requires a specific set of tools and education for staff to know what is expected of them and how to manage ‘busy’ effectively for sustainable results,” she advises.

Those businesses that do this well will have a productive, committed workforce. Businesses that are less able to do this could suffer from high attrition levels, low staff morale and tension in the office.

Good mental health should be a ‘business as usual’ consideration for all workplaces. It requires an ongoing commitment, sensitivity and a personal approach to ensure all staff are supported to do their job and don’t experience poor mental health as a result of their employment.

Some stress is reasonable, but it becomes an issue when it is excessive and ongoing. Developing strategies for a healthy workplace provides a framework for your workplace to promote mental wellbeing, minimise workplace stressors, support people experiencing mental health issues and reduce stigma associated with mental health conditions. Heads Up provides free, practical information and resources to create mentally healthy workplaces.

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