Stress-related illness is a growing problem for both employees and employers, costing industry and the NHS billions.
A Mori poll of 112 top UK companies revealed that 65% believed stress was a major factor in ill health in their organisations.
Every day 270,000 people take time off work for stress-related illness and absenteeism cost the UK £10.2bn last year.
Stress is a manifestation of the traditional
fight or flight
response to a potential threat or danger.
Of course, over short periods, this is perfectly healthy, and virtually everyone can cope with very short periods of stress.
However, over a sustained period, keeping the body in readiness this way is harmful.
Although some people appear to thrive on stress, for others, the consequences can be devastating.
It has certainly been linked to the development of stomach ulcers, and increases in high blood pressure.
Over the longer term, both of these place the worker at higher risk of more serious illnesses such as heart disease and stroke.
One piece of Scottish research found that heart attacks were more likely to occur on a Monday.
This was perhaps due to bingeing over the weekend, they said—but also might be caused by work stress.
In addition, stress can lead to over-indulgence in unhealthy habits, such as overeating, smoking and drinking, the health effects of which are well-documented.
It can be a vicious cycle—stress can lead to insomnia or depression, or other physical symptoms, which in turn decrease performance at work, and increase the level of stress experienced.
However, the effects of stressful working conditions on mental health are equally costly.
Depression or even nervous breakdown are both well-known consequences of extremely stressful working conditions.
Some jobs, particularly in the public services, are thought to be particularly stressful.
The strain of dealing with a volatile public often means workers have difficulty carrying out routine tasks or become too afraid of assaults to continue in their jobs. Workers' health and families suffer, too.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union says the number of attacks on transport staff is on the rise, and is embarking on a programme of trying to persuade employers to take action to avoid provoking public anger.
In the NHS, the government has had to introduce a
tolerance campaign to try to reduce the number of attacks, and
amount of verbal abuse heaped on staff.
It has long been suggested that stress can have an effect on a woman's ability to conceive, and this suggestion was given some weight by a recent study which found high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in women whose periods had either stopped or were wildly irregular.
Relaxation therapy and counselling reversed these problems in most.
Employers' organisation, the confederation of British Industry, says it is in employers' own interests to cut down stress.
A spokeswoman said:
Companies need to look carefully at the type of
jobs their staff do to make sure they aren't unduly stressed, and
make sure someone has the training, and hasn't got too much
work. No company wants its staff to go off sick due to stress.
However, stress is not a human phenomenon—researchers found that members of baboon societies were also prone to it.