Stressed workers remain an issue for a wide range of global stakeholders, and is cited as the most important health issue by employers in new research. Combating the issue remains difficult, however, as employees cite that being paid inadequately is the biggest stressor in their work life, followed by their respective organisation being understaffed. Reducing stress is correlated with improved business outcomes, including increased productivity and reduced turnover.
A healthy worker is a productive worker. While it is easy to imagine such a slogan from even the most dystopian dictatorship, supporting a healthy workplace is important to a range of stakeholders – employees, employers and the sociality stand to gain. One area of particular concern is stress.
Stress is a relatively insidious condition which, if left to fester, creates a range of physical and mental outcomes that can lead to a vicious cycle into ill-health, poor engagement and absenteeism. In recent years, the need to support the health of employees has filtered through to the executive of global organisations – as the benefits of good health, such as improved performance and productivity are better understood.
Combating stress, among others, has become a priority for organisations – however, strategies in place to do so may be failing. In a new report from Willis Towers Watson, titled ‘Employee Health and Business Success’, the consultancy firm explores a growing trend within businesses to support employees’ health in relation to, among others, stress. However, the research also highlights that there is a considerable disconnect between what is causing an employee stress and what the employer thinks is stressful.
The research found that the biggest health related issue facing respective workforces globally is stress (64%), followed by a lack of physical activity (53%), overweight/obesity came in third (45%), poor nutrition was fourth (31%) and lack of sleep fifth (30%). Across Asia, stress and a lack of physical exercise swap places for first and second – with Greater China as the exception, where stress is rated fifth.
The effects of prolonged stress on humans, and animals more generally, can be profound. Among others, stress has been documented to reduce the ability of the immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses, resulting in increased likelihood and duration of illness. If the stress becomes chronic, a range of long term conditions may ensue, including anxiety, depression, social isolation, headache, abdominal pain, lack of sleep, back pain and difficulty concentrating. Other symptoms include hypertension, hemorrhoidspanic attacks and cardiovascular diseases. Additionally, brain structures can become affected – with long term structural changes resulting in impairments in working memory and spatial memory, as well as increased aggression. Besides stress, a lack of physical exercise and poor diet exuberate the risks of developing a range of metabolic disorders – resulting in a toxic mix of conditions that may form a vicious cycle.
Stress has been identified as a health related issue by the largest proportion of the global workforce. Yet, while it is an issue for both employers and employees, their ‘view’ on the cause of stress are very poorly aligned.
For employees, the biggest issue causing them stress is inadequate pay. 74% of respondents said it was, in their view, a cause of stress. The second biggest concern for employees is inadequate staffing, at 70% of respondents. Third is company culture at 69%, followed by a work/life balance at 68%. The view on the other side finds that 46% of employers put low pay as a cause of stress for their employees – it comes in at tenth spot – a lack of work/life balance comes in first. Inadequate staffing is understood to be an issue by employers. However, their number three spot goes to unclear or conflicting job specifications, and to technologies expanding the workday at number four.
The survey highlights a serious disconnect between employers and employees. On this topic, the survey authors state “Employers highlight work/life balance issues, but employees are focused on three far different areas: adequate pay, the right resources to do their work, a clear understanding of priorities and a work environment that allows them to be effective. When employers don’t recognise and address the stressors employees face, the risk of turnover and low performance increases.” This, in addition, to also being slowed down by the effects of stress on their physical and mental life.
Many organisations have adopted health and productivity strategies in their operations. These strategies seek to create a more healthy work environment through a range of measures, from health checkups to well-being programmes and seminars. The aims of the strategies, according to the report, tends to be focused on improving productivity at 74% globally, followed by improving safety, at 73% of respondents. Improving health/risk awareness comes in third at 69%, while developing a healthy culture comes in at 67% globally. Improving physical health comes in fifth, cited by 65% of respondents. Interestingly, stress reduction is only in the Asian top five, in North Asia and India, but not in the top five globally.
The report also considers what the most effective versus the least effective programmes for supporting strong health and productivity outcomes were between organisations. The research found that a fragmented approach tends to have the worst results for outcomes, while a focus on providing prevention programmes aimed at keeping employees healthy, as well as programmes aimed at providing personal support to employees with specific health needs are correlated with better long term health outcomes. Other factors that provide a positive contribution include building and sustaining a culture of health at the workplace and aligning H&P strategies with the employee value proposition.
The benefits can be sizeable, find the authors – including 25% fewer employees with hypertension, 24% fewer employees with high blood glucose levels, 30% fewer employees using tobacco while they are 50% more likely than competitors to report lower turnover rates, they have 33% higher market premium (market value to replacement cost of assets) and they have 50% higher revenue per employee.