Meltdown in progress

Work stress is now the most common reason for absenteeism in the workplace.
Each year it affects half a million people in the UK, resulting in 13.5 million
lost working days and costing about £100bn a year in lost output, according to
the findings from mental health charity Mind released last month.

While it is the employees’ responsibility to look after themselves and ensure
work doesn’t lead to illness, it is easy for people working in a high-stress
sector like accountancy to fall prey to work-related stress without realising

Downsizing, streamlined management structures, month-end deadlines and new
reporting regulations all exacerbate an already heavy workload. Let’s not forget
the threat of redundancy, office politics and harassment and bullying –
including offensive behaviour, negative attacks on personal or professional
matters and abuse of power.

Whatever the cause, the first step in dealing successfully with stress is to
recognise the signs of strain. These include changes in appetite, difficulty in
sleeping, irritability, poor concentration, loss of interest and enjoyment,
difficulty in processing information and dealing efficiently with tasks, loss of
sex drive, and all types of aches and pains.

Some people will demonstrate mainly physical symptoms, while others will find
that stress manifests itself in the form of anxiety and depression. Either way,
self-medication – alcohol to help you calm down or sleep, or stimulant drugs
such as amphetamines or cocaine to boost energy levels – will only make things
worse in the longer term.

Once you recognise gathering symptoms for what they are, you should act on
them by looking at any possible opportunity to pull back. It’s a paradox that
those most likely to suffer strain in response to stress tend to be the strong,
diligent types. The ones who try to be the best possible employee while also
being the perfect spouse, parent, friend or carer.

You may think that pulling back from work is impossible owing to the
particular demands of your job. Whether you’re the chief executive of a large
public company or a single mother with three children under school age, you’ll
keep going under stress and try to perform your tasks perfectly. But the human
body only has so much capacity and if you keep overloading it, eventually it
will fail.

For too many people, it’s only when they become seriously ill with a clinical
depressive illness or a serious physical illness that they are forced to stop
and re-evaluate their lives.

Those who have managed to make the necessary changes, and remain well as a
result, tell me the same thing – you can achieve 98% of the output with 60% of
the effort. The key is to find the 2% of output you can lose and the 40% of
input that is not necessary.

If you think there is no way you can change your activities, you’re wrong.
Bear in mind that those who have succeeded in pulling back are often
disappointed that nobody notices they are ‘coasting’.

Individuals need to take responsibility for protecting themselves, but
employers also have a legal responsibility to protect employees from avoidable
excessive stress – compensation claims aside, it makes hard commercial sense.
Your best employees are more likely to suffer from stress-related illness, while
the shirkers and backsliders always find ways to alleviate the pressure.

If you provide too stressful a working environment, you will eventually lose
all your star employees and be left only with the poor ones. Therefore nurture
and protect the best.

Allow them time off if they do get ill and when someone has been off with a
stress-related illness and goes back to work, make sure they begin on a
supernumerary basis – maybe three half days a week and increasing towards
full-time working over a period of six weeks to two months depending on how they
are doing. During this process, it is helpful for them to be supportively
managed. Look for ways in which their post can be made more sustainable.

Stress is not synonymous with heavy workload. Employees who feel valued, and
are informed as early as possible of decisions can absorb much more than those
who feel marginalised and powerless.

Do not place too much emphasis on gimmicky-sounding labels and meaningless
slogans. Five minutes of caring face-to-face contact is worth more than hours of
formalised structures, which all too often present only the illusion of support
to the employee.

And if an employee does complain about work stress, it is essential that they
are listened to and that the source of their problem is addressed. It may be
necessary for some members of staff to seek professional help. Both work stress
and depression can be successfully managed on an out patient basis, so there is
no need for anyone at work to know that the person is receiving treatment.

Dr Tim Cantopher is a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in


Prioritise your workload. Complete tasks with a deadline first, then
methodically deal with the remainder of your work, leaving low-priority work in
your in tray.

Try to delegate or share your responsibilities.

Do not strive for perfection. Your targets must be achievable and
sustainable. Not always succeeding perfectly is a worthwhile trade-off for
keeping well.

Accept your limitations and do not pretend to be able to do what you can’t.

Keep your office door closed and use technology (such as email and answer
phones) to protect you from constant interactions.

Do not have your mobile on all the time, particularly evenings and weekends,
and avoid being contactable 24 hours a day.

Limit your coffee consumptions to two to three cups a day. Do not drink
alcohol during the day.

Build in some spare time for unforeseen circumstances into your day.

Communicate with your line manager: have informal catch-ups and diarise
regular meetings.

Related reading