God knows what Jack Bauer’s blood pressure is like. The 24 hero seems to be in a constant state of flight or fright brought on by extreme stress.

Why read this?

■ The effect stress related-absences have on UK productivity
■ How to recognise stress in the workplace
■ The best ways to tackle it

At least Bauer’s stress comes in relatively short-term, acute bursts. Constant, chronic, long-term stress can wear away the body’s defences with serious consequences. Heart disease, diabetes, strokes, high blood pressure… the list of felonies attributed at least in part to stress is – literally – breathtaking.
It can wreck your health, your relationships and your decision-making. It is having a huge impact on the workplace. Stress costs the UK economy a colossal £5 billion a year, according to CBI figures. “Stress is the reaction people have when they are unable to cope with pressures placed upon them by others or themselves,” explains BT’s group chief medical officer Paul Litchfield. “If you perpetually have levels of stress, people will adapt to it and part of that can be to develop physical symptoms.”
Stress is an epidemic but many of us tend to accept and expect it as a normal facet of the workplace. Indeed, it can sometimes be hard for us to admit feeling unable to cope in case it’s seen as a sign of weakness or an inability to do the job.

"If you perpetually have levels of stress, people will adapt to it and part of that can be to develop physical symptoms."

Paul Litchfield, chief medical officer, BT Grou

But stress is gaining more attention from employers in the last few years. Partly, argues Litchfield, this is because the obvious workplace health and safety issues such as reducing accident rates at work have been addressed. With that sorted, it’s mental health that’s next on the agenda. As a head of department, it’s your responsibility to create a mentally as well as physically safe environment for you and your staff. It’s also good for business.

Causes of workplace stress

It’s too simple to say that having lots of pressure or too much work will cause stress. “There are those who thrive on pressure and for those people under-loading can be as potentially a source of stress as overloading,” says Litchfield.
Some pressure is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t tip over into being stress. Feeling in control is key to preventing this. “Lack of control or perceived control and uncertainty cause stress,” argues Graham Jones, co-founder and research and diagnostics director at performance consultancy Lane4.
The biggest reason for people leaving their jobs is because they don’t get on with their line manager. If a manager has overloaded them with work and isn’t giving them enough support, then they are going to feel stressed.
For most of us, however, it’s too much work that’s the problem, although what constitutes too much will vary from person to person. But work pressure is often not the whole story. “If you look at sources of pressure that precipitate mental problems, in 20 per cent of cases work is a primary factor; 80 per cent it’s outside work, but very often it’s a mix. So a person can just about cope at work when things at home are fine, but if not, it becomes too much at work,” says Litchfield.

Stress Symptoms

CIO LESSON Mood swings, particularly aggressive behaviour – usually the result of a lack of sleep – are typical signs of someone suffering from stress. People can behave out of character: quiet, unassuming people becoming aggressive and outgoing people becoming increasingly withdrawn.
Jones believes that once things have got this obvious, then someone is already chronically stressed, so managers need
to “look for subtle changes rather than
big things”.
Increased absenteeism, either of individuals or across departments is another clear marker that there could be a problem. If a whole unit or group is stressed, then this will quickly start to affect the bottom-line. “If things aren’t going well, you don’t have to tell a good business leader that, because they can see that business performance levels are dropping,” says Litchfield.

Another common cause of stress, and pretty much inevitable in the modern workplace, is dealing with change. “Serial change is sapping for everyone, particularly if it’s not managed properly,” believes Litchfield.
All too often, companies don’t really involve people in change. Telling people what is happening and asking for their feedback is not the same as genuinely involving them in the decision-making process. “There are some things we cannot negotiate, but a lot of stress comes from senior managers mishandling expectations,” says Adrian Locke, senior consultant at Roffey Park Institute.
IT chiefs also need to think about how the company, department and behaviour contribute to that culture. If they work 12-hour days, then it sets up an expectation that everyone must do the same.

A supportive workplace

Having a supportive culture and work environment in place is the bedrock to preventing stress. As Jones says: “If the environment and the culture aren’t right, it’s very difficult for any coping mechanisms to work.”
The physical workspace is an easy place to start on any anti-stress policy. Companies need to implement Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines on the amount of space people have and on background noise levels.
The HSE guidelines also talk about the importance of employees being in control of their environment. So, if you know that you’re distracted working in an open office or unhappy working on your own, then try to minimise time in those environments.
Give your staff flexibility and control wherever feasible. “Giving people autonomy is a motivator and the more motivated you are, the less stressed you are,” says Jones.
As the relationship with line managers is pivotal to how much people enjoy work, companies need to ensure that they have supportive people in place. “The support network around you and your manager is key,” says Jones.
People will be stressed if they do not enjoy what they do. So both from your own perspective and as a manager: “You should look at the whole of employees’ lives and spend time focusing on what they’re really good at and feel passionate about,” suggests Locke.
“Ask what gives them fulfilment – a key stress factor is a lack of purpose. People need to search for meaning.”
As a manager you need to watch out for people who work or try too hard. “Perfectionists achieve an awful lot but there is a cost,” says Locke.

Achieving balance

“In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins looked for organisations that made the transition from good to great,” says Locke. “Committed and driven leaders weren’t necessarily the best. Lots of the best ones actually had a lot of other stuff going on in their lives.”
In other words, they had found a healthy balance between work and play.
From a personal level, there are obvious things you can do to minimise the effects of stress; getting a good night’s sleep, taking regular exercise and breaks from work will ensure your levels of personal resilience will be higher. Resorting to ‘self-medication’ in the bottom of a whisky glass is not going to provide that.
If you recognise you’re feeling stressed, then take time out. Step away from the problem for five minutes and walk around.
If a member of your staff isn’t coping with stress, then the answer could be as simple as training or giving that person an extra pair of hands to complete a complex project. Perhaps that person simply isn’t ready to assume that level of responsibility and should be moved to a new assignment.
When the company or department is going through a lot of change, it’s important to keep communication channels open to make people feel as comfortable as possible. Let people know what’s happening – don’t change things without telling them first – and if at all possible, include them in the decision-making, so that they have some control over the changes.
“Companies are used to implementing IT systems, but when it comes to their working practises, sometimes they look at things from the outside and not the inside – how people feel,” says Locke.
The perception of how successful that communication is can vary greatly.
“Employees often have very different ideas compared to senior managers, who will tell you what they are doing and then you can comment on it, but often genuine involvement doesn’t result.”
There are, of course, some work things that cannot be negotiated, but there are many areas where people can be included in decision-making.

Suffering burnout

People cannot work at full tilt the whole time – even those who thrive on pressure.
Continually moving from one high-profile, high-pressure project to another is exhausting. You need to give people down time before they move on to a new project to give them time to recover. Otherwise, they will hit their mid-30s and find something else to do because they are burnt out. “One way companies can help is recognise people can be stressed and allow the word to be used,” says Jones.
“Some organisations run managing pressure workshops – why can’t we call it stress?” he adds.
BT has an online questionnaire it developed in-house, where staff can monitor their own stress levels.
Their answers go to their line manager and help detect individual and departmental stress. “A lot of people find it useful because it gives them and their line manager an agenda to talk about,” says Litchfield.
“That’s much easier than starting with one of those difficult conversations: ‘I’m feeling a bit stressed.’ ”
“As soon as we’ve done it we anonymise the data and capture it in organisational terms to work out where organisational hotspots are and take that data and triangulate it with sickness absence data.”

The BT approach

■ Since Paul Litchfield, BT's group chief medical officer, joined the company, mental health sickness absence has been cut by 30 per cent and the medical retirement rate for mental illness is down by 80 per cent.

■ 75 per cent of long term absentees now return to their jobs – the national figure is between 20 per cent and 25 per cent. BT is also excising medical questions from its application forms.

The key to BT’s strategy:
■ Prevention – through the Work Fit: Positive Mentality campaign which provides practical guidance to employees on how to improve their mental health at work and at home.
■ Intervention – getting in there as early as possible to prevent problems from happening.
■ Support – recognising that people will have mental health problems,
supporting them through that time and helping rehabilitate them back to work.