The cost of stress

14th of September 2011
The cost of stress

Stress-related illnesses are one of the biggest causes of staff absenteeism in Europe. Yet surveys reveal businesses seem more prepared to take the hit in terms of lost productivity than get to grips with the issue, as Hartley Milner reports.

I’m under so much pressure at work I really don’t know how I’m going to cope!” It is a familiar refrain, yet most of the time we do manage to meet the demands heaped upon us and may even surprise ourselves and impress others with the excellence of our solutions. A little pressure can be a positive and motivating force, say psychologists – driving us on to improve our performance and achieve amazing goals.

Stress kicks in when the pressure becomes too great and the demands made of a person exceed their ability to deal with them. Unless managed early, this feeling of being overwhelmed can trigger acute mental and physical problems that may lead to prolonged periods off work and, in the most extreme cases, suicide.

Across the EU, between 50 and 60 per cent of all lost working days are related to stress, according to the European Commission. And the impact on the region’s economies is alarming. In France, the cost is around three billion euros a year, while in the UK close to 10 million working days are lost due to anxiety, stress and depression. Overall, the cost to the EU is estimated at four per cent of GDP.

Symptoms managers should be alert for are many and varied, explains Malgorzata Milczarek, prevention and research unit project manager at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).

“Stress can include physiological responses such as stimulation of the autonomic nervous system and hormonal system, cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal diseases (MSDs), weakened immunity and hypertension,” she said. “Emotional symptoms may include irritability, anxiety, sleep problems, depression, hypochondria, alienation, burnout and relationship problems.

“There may also be cognitive responses, such as difficulty in concentrating, remembering, learning new things and making decisions. Psychological symptoms may include strong negative emotions like anger, anxiety, irritation, depression, changes in cognition, decreased self-esteem and a perception of the social world as hostile.” Drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse are other pointers, as well as proneness to making mistakes.

“The declining physical and mental health of workers invariably leads to deteriorated performance of the entire organisation,” Milczarek continued. “This is reflected by such indicators as increased absenteeism, increased staff turnover, decreased productivity, disciplinary problems, harassment, accidents, errors and increased costs due to compensation payouts or health care.”

Some common causes:

•Long hours, heavy workloads, infrequent breaks, boring tasks, poorly defined goals, too much responsibility

•Not being involved in decision-making, poor communication, a lack of family-friendly policies

•Poor support from co-workers and supervisors and people having conflicting expectations of you

•Job insecurity, a lack of opportunity for growth or advancement

•Unpleasant or dangerous working conditions, such as overcrowding, noise, air pollution or ergonomic problems.

‘Patchy’ response

EU-OSHA recently unveiled the results of Europe’s biggest workplace health and safety study, showing that 79 per cent of managers have concerns about stress at work, but only 26 per cent of EU organisations have measures in place to deal with the problem.

The European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks, carried out across the 27 EU countries plus Croatia, Turkey, Norway and Switzerland, also shows 42 per cent of companies consider psychosocial risks harder to deal with, due to the sensitivity of the issues and lack of awareness.

“Providing effective support to enable enterprises to tackle stress will be crucial in ensuring we have the healthy and productive workforce required to boost European economic performance and competitiveness,” the report says.

In 2009, EU-OSHA released the findings of a Europe-wide citizens’ poll, highlighting widespread concern that the economic downturn could impact on health and safety at work. Six out of 10 respondents expected the crisis to erode their working conditions, especially relating to health and safety, and 75 per cent across EU member states believed ill-health was caused in part by the job people have.

And a study carried out last year by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions revealed growing anxiety about job security. In 2005, 14 per cent of workers in the EU27 feared they might lose their job during the next six months. By 2010, this figure had risen to 16 per cent – “no doubt reflecting the impact of the recession,” the survey concludes.

Employers are obliged to manage work-related stress in line with EU health and safety directives where made law in member states.

Earlier this year, the European Commission published its evaluation of the 2004 cross-country social partners agreement on tackling work-related stress, concluding it has had some positive effects. Nineteen EU countries now have legislation or binding collective agreements addressing psychological risks at work.

However, the Commission concedes the agreement’s implementation has been “patchy”, with some partners not reporting on the follow-up to their commitment or falling short of expectations.

Stress in cleaning

Our industry has specific concerns relating to workplace stress, according to another recent EU-OSHA report. The Managing Psychosocial Risks With Cleaning Workers study finds that stress-related mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and burnout, are common among the 3.75 million people employed in the European cleaning sector. It observes that sick leave is significantly higher than the EU average and cleaning personnel are more likely than others to leave the workforce because of mental health problems.

The study concludes that factors such as low occupational and educational status, non-standard working hours, part-time work, temporary contracts, staff shortages, under-resourcing, lack of training and high workload make it “unattractive as a career choice”.

“As a result, the sector continues to suffer from high staff turnover and difficulties in recruitment,” it observes. “This, in turn, can affect the skills available in the profession or create skills gaps. These negative factors can damage the reputation and perceptions of the occupation and the sector. The challenge is to reverse these negative perceptions by improving working conditions.”

Andrew Large, chief executive of the Cleaning and Support Services Association (CSSA), conceded: “It is vital for the development and the continued professionalisation of the sector that cleaning clients and contractors recognise the need for improved wages, health and safety measures and high quality management.”

But he added: “These initiatives need to come from within the industry and from relationships between clients and their cleaning service provider. Attempts to impose improvements from the outside only create incentives for the informal economy.”

The European Federation of Cleaning Industries (EFCI) has sought to address illness and stress issues among workers through a range of free handbooks produced in co-operation with its European trade union counterpart UNI Europa. “If people know their job well, they feel rather less stressed,” said director general Andreas Lill.

A manual on health and safety identifies the most common occupational risks in office cleaning and suggests a range of preventative measures, while Ergonomics in Cleaning Operations deals with the physical aspects of cleaning – bodily position, working positions, etc – that can lead to musculoskeletal disorders. “MSDs are often the source of problems, because if people have back pain or other kind of pain they feel stressed,” explained Lill.

The isolation cleaning staff can feel working outside normal office hours, often alone in the early morning or late afternoon when it may be dark, is another area where the EFCI has been active, promoting daytime working where possible.

“Our experience is cleaners feel less like outsiders and are not so stressed,” Lill continued. “They have a relationship with people in the office, who can tell them what areas they want cleaned and which to leave. They feel part of the workforce and that their work is more visible.”

Cutting red tape

A common complaint of businesses is the bureaucratic burden resulting from legislation. Of 500 small business owners questioned in a survey by, 81 per cent said red tape and legislation were the major factors causing them day-to-day stress and, for almost half, sleepless nights.

In 2007, the European Commission gave itself until 2012 to reduce the annual administrative cost of EU legislation on business by 25 per cent, with special measures for small enterprises. These included simpler accounting rules for companies of up to 10 employees and the removal of restrictions on using electronic invoices to report value added tax.

In its latest progress report, the Commission says it is on track to exceed its target, cutting red tape by 33 per cent and saving businesses more than 40 billion euros a year.


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  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
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