A female employee looks exhausted as she pinches her nose due to work-related stress in a dark room in front of a laptop.
Image: © blackday/Stock.adobe.com

We need to start taking work-related stress seriously

27 Nov 2018

A new ESRI report reveals pretty stark levels of work-related stress, proving that we’re still not taking employee mental health seriously enough, writes Jenny Darmody.

Work-related stress has soared in recent years, according to a new study from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The latest findings show that in a five-year period between 2010 and 2015, the percentage of the workforce experiencing stress had more than doubled in Ireland. This was one of the steepest climbs among the 10 European countries surveyed, although Ireland is still below the average. I’m not sure which part of that is more worrying.

This will come as no surprise to many of you, not only because you are most likely experiencing that increased stress yourself, but because we have been talking about this steady climb towards critical stress levels for some time.

A year ago, I spoke to psychologist Gerry Hussey about the phenomenon around being busy and how talk of a stressful week was fast becoming a badge of honour. Having read a recent Medium post on the toxic spectacle of ‘struggle porn’, it appears that many people are still vying for that badge of honour.

But enough about the workers who might be feeding into the belief that being busy must equal productivity and hard work. As the ESRI report shows, employees are clearly stressed enough without having to worry about whether they’re doing it to themselves.

No, my issue is with the policymakers and, more importantly, the companies. At a micro level, I want to appeal directly to the managers of the world.

A few months ago, I talked about how damaging it is for prominent CEOs to weaken the importance of work-life balance simply because they didn’t care for the term. And last night, hours before I saw the grim findings of the ESRI report, I saw yet another clanger from yet another prominent CEO.

Earth to Elon: your message isn’t inspirational, it’s nonsense. And, to paraphrase a glorious response to this ridiculous statement, this sounds like crap time management to me.

Managers need to pay attention

You don’t have to be a Bezos or a Musk to inspire a stress-inducing culture. Even if you manage one person other than yourself, you have a duty of care to that person. Being a manager isn’t just a promotion with a fancy title. You have a responsibility to manage the members of your team.

The ESRI report highlights some of the reasons behind the spike in work-related stress, including emotional demands, deadlines, bullying, extended hours and being underpaid. If you’re a manager who thinks that none of these issues faced by your team are your problem, you need to really think about whether or not you should be in your role.

These complaints should not be disregarded as part of a ‘snowflake culture’, which seems to be another meaningless phrase used by people to complain about those who raise issues that they would not personally raise. Ironically, it is the very people who complain about ‘snowflakes’ who seem to be the most vocally irate about the world around them with little interest in changing things for the better.

Managers need to care about what their employees care about. For instance, bullying and harassment were noted as some of the major causes of work-related stress and, according to the report, those who had experienced these were eight times more likely to be stressed than those who hadn’t.

Managers and companies need to be attuned to the workplace culture, and that does not mean walking over to the mission statement scrawled across the wall and nodding. It means walking around the room and taking note of what it’s really like for the employees who work there. Just because ‘toxic culture’ isn’t on the wall, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Unrealistic expectations

However, what I found most interesting in the ESRI report was how much unrealistic expectations on employees attributed to work-related stress.

The findings show that those under time pressure were 10 times more likely to experience job stress than those without tight deadlines. Those who work more than 40 hours a week were twice as likely to experience stress than those who do not. Finally, those who felt they were underpaid for what they do were four times more likely to be stressed.

Indeed, overworking has become a serious danger in recent years and, while some of that is on employees to watch out for, I cannot stress enough the importance of managers instilling a healthier culture of work-life balance.

This is especially important when you consider something that The HR Suite’s Caroline McEnery said on Newstalk in reference to the report. She stated her concern that while bullying and harassment issues are more likely to be reported, unrealistic deadlines or expectations might not be. Again, the onus is on managers and employers to be aware of what is and isn’t an unrealistic expectation.

Duty of care

As I have mentioned before, managers have a duty of care to their employees, and that includes trying to avoid work-related stress and burnout. If I can’t appeal to your empathetic side, then hear me out from a business point of view: stressed and burnt-out employees are far more detrimental to your bottom line than wellness programmes will ever be.

‘If you believe you are taking steps to reduce stress for your employees, prove it’

According to the report, employer survey data suggests that only 40pc of Irish firms have policies in place to deal with work-related stress. This is much lower than the proportion with such systems for workplace bullying.

It’s not all bad news. The findings also show that Irish employees reported relatively high levels of support from managers and co-workers. However, this is clearly not enough. In spite of support, stress has doubled. We need real policies in place to address this. I believe having a mission statement on your wall that implies a positive and supportive company culture should be means-tested.

If you believe you are taking steps to reduce stress for your employees, prove it. Because, clearly, more action needs to be taken. Remember, this report shows data from between 2010 and 2015. We’re three years further on from that dramatic stress spike. I shudder to think what the next report will show.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading