The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that stress costs employers more than£380m per year, and UK society as a whole more than£37bn. A major study by the University of Bristol has showed that stress-related illnesses are the second most common cause of ill health at work. Top of the list of the causes of occupational stress were long hours, excessive workloads and lack of control.
But what can senior managers do to address this? One solution is to carry out a detailed 'stress audit' - a survey assessing the stress levels of all staff employed by the council - to establish where the stress 'hot spots' in the organisation are found, and to compile information about their underlying causes.
Somerset CC is taking this issue seriously following a landmark court case in which a teacher sued the council for work-related stress (BarbervSomersetCC). Determined to change its organisational culture in relation to long-hours working, the council brought in occupational psychology consultancy Robertson Cooper and set about investigating stress.
All 12,000 staff were surveyed using a paper questionnaire. Employees in schools, the fire service and social services all received questions tailored to their specialised field, and other staff received a generic questionnaire.
"This way, we were able to use the language and terminology which was appropriate to each group," says Brian Oldham, group manager for health and safety at Somerset CC.
Clarity and thorough preparation were essential. "We had the support of the chief executive and senior staff, and made sure we also got the unions behind the project," he says.
The questions covered issues such as how the organisation made them feel, and the degree of control they had over their work. Returns were high, and the survey was followed up with focus groups. The process took nine months and the final report came out in 2002.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and a partner at Robertson Cooper, believes that the experience of councils like Somerset has shown how effective a stress audit can be.
He says: "A lot of organisations tackle stress by introducing initiatives to address the problem they think they have - insisting that everyone meditates at lunchtime, for instance - rather than finding out what the real problem is in the first place.
"But if you conduct an audit, you can find out not only which departments have a particular problem with stress, but also what groups of people are worst affected."
Indeed, the Somerset audit revealed a stress 'hot spot' in the social services department. Too many employees were in junior roles, managed by too few senior staff, and both groups were stressed. The issue was resolved by management training focused on specific junior staff.
Since the audit, absentee rates have fallen from 10.75% to just over five percent. But Somerset's Mr Oldham highlights the fact that a stress audit is not useful unless its findings are followed up with systematic organisational change.
"Since the audit, we have made a number of important changes, including revamping the appraisal system to make it more of a dialogue than a 'top down' assessment," he says.
For example, the council now works to a set management standards developed by the HSE. This enables senior managers to deal with employees more effectively, and is intended ease a process which can be stressful in itself.
"Using a framework makes it easier to be objective about the causes of stress, and depersonalises the issue," says Mr Oldham.
Other innovations include a 'listening' service staffed by volunteer employees and 'reactive stress risk assessments', in which staff who have been absent for three weeks more meet with managers and colleagues assess the issue of stress in relation to their absence.
This all takes time, as well as organisational will. "An audit has to be run as a proper project, not just dumped on someone's desk," says Mr Oldham. "A successful stress audit needs a team behind it, buy-in from the top - and must be properly structured and resourced."
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DOs and DON'Ts
DO Ensure you have commitment from the chief executive and the senior management team
DOConduct an audit which is systematic, and flexible enough to be intelligible to staff in different functions
DO Follow up on key findings with meaningful organisational reform
DON'T Expect one person in management or HR to push this agenda through
DON'TMake assumptions about the cause or the location of stress in your council
DON'T Allow a stress audit to be filed away and forgotten once it is complete