By Innes Bowen
BBC Radio 4, More or Less
It's widely thought that employees on lower grades suffer if they have little control over their jobs. Is this true?
A group of middle managers gathers in central
"Stress isn't an illness but there's quite a bit of evidence that it increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and mental health problems. So people potentially can become ill because of chronic stress," Barber tells the group.
Is this really true?
Stress management courses are now a staple of corporate life and the claim often made that there is a link between stress and ill health has become the received wisdom.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the government body in charge of protecting people's health at work, has even made giving workers more control over their workload a legal obligation.
According to employment lawyer Gordon Turner, the HSE standards on stress are so rigorous that many employers fear details of their working practices becoming public. "It's so easy to slip up. If an employee takes a grievance as far as an employment tribunal, companies often settle rather than risk a public hearing that might attract the attention of the HSE."
Both the HSE and stress management trainers are influenced by a famous survey of the health of British civil servants known as the Whitehall II study. Led by Prof Sir Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist at University College London, Whitehall II has tracked the lives of thousands of civil servants for more than 20 years in an attempt to assess the effect of job status on health.
According to Professor Marmot, it is not stress per se that has an adverse effect on health and life expectancy. Rather it is working in a job where there are high demands accompanied by a lack of control. "People of high status tend to have high demand and that doesn't seem to cause any illness problems at all."
Some academics in this field have their doubts. Dr John MacLeod is one of a team of researchers at
"We looked at these issues in a study of 6,000 working men in South West Scotland. Unusually, when these men were recruited in the early 1970s, it was the middle classes and the more advantaged who were experiencing high levels of stress. In those circumstances stress was not associated with poorer health."
Professor Marmot's response is that the Scottish study does not use good measures of stress.
Sick of work
As far as heart disease is concerned, it is not only Dr MacLeod and colleagues at
Dr MacLeod believes that so-called psychosocial explanations of ill health are a distraction from what he believes are more likely causes of a growing health divide between richer and poorer people.
"We don't really know the causes but material disadvantage in childhood is one of the strongest predictors of health in adulthood. So the best bet would be to target and reduce childhood deprivation if we want to see reductions in health inequalities."
So are companies wasting money by sending managers on courses that might make them feel guilty about placing high demands on their workers?
Dr MacLeod doesn't go that far. "It may not reduce the risk of heart disease but creating fairer workplaces is a humane and just thing to do."
Reporter: Dr Jonica Newby
6 September 2007
If you think work is getting more stressful, you’re not imagining it. Since 1964, the average working week for white collar workers has gone up by 10 hours.
In scenes reminiscent of Dickensian England, we’re working harder, longer and with more job insecurity than ever before – and the cost is increasingly clear. Decades of research across hundreds of thousands of workers point to a full scale stress epidemic.
In this week’s must watch episode of Catalyst, we travel to London to meet the world experts and tackle one of the biggest issues of our time – what is rising workplace stress really doing to us?
Stress in the
But can a radical intervention in the
Jonica Newby goes undercover with the London Police Force to find out what the City of
Alison Youles I remember looking in the mirror, and seeing an absolute horrendous rash that was all down this left side here. So I went to the doctors and he said this is to do with stress. I couldn’t believe it – a rash due to stress?
Narration If you think work is getting more stressful, you’re not imagining it. Since 1964, the average working week for white collar workers has gone up by 10 hours.
In scenes reminiscent of Dickensian England, we’re working harder, longer, and with more job insecurity – and the cost is clear.
Dr Jonica Newby This week, we’re looking deep into the dark heart of workplace stress – why it makes us sick, how it makes us sick. And we’ve come to
Narration Can we turn back the stress juggernaut?
Professor Cary Cooper We’re talking now I think about the 21st century black plague. I see stress as the main source of disease or the trigger for disease in the 21st century developed world.
Narration At first glance, Sergeant Alison Youles of the City of a London Police seems like a character straight out of The Bill.
Her easy manner and tough spirit had delivered promotions … and a role as a popular police instructor.
But in 2003, she took on a new challenge … undercover surveillance … and life started to go horribly off script.
Alison Youles Management wasn’t good. You always got criticised. The hours we were working. We worked silly hours. Also the not drinking a lot a water, a massive issue. You drink a lot of water, you’ve got to do to the toilet, you’ve got to go away from the car.
Narration As the months went by, she was beset by strange physical symptoms – a facial rash that wouldn’t go away … blinding headaches … panic attacks.
Alison Youles I remember coming home, and I walked in the house and I could not breathe, I just couldn’t breathe. I was crying, I was hysterical. And I rang my Mum, and fortunately she managed to calm me down and she told me to go and get a bag and breath slowly. And when I look back at that point I should have left, I should have left on that day. But I didn’t I just kept going and going and going.
Narration It’s a story that’s all too familiar to Professor Cary Cooper.
The first to discover workplace stress can cause illness back in the 70s – he’s since studied literally hundreds of thousands of workers.
Professor Cary Cooper I do still get the occasional sceptic in industry who says there’s no link here – I enjoy stress. What they fail to understand by the way is the distinction between pressure and stress. Pressure is stimulating and motivating, but when pressure exceeds your ability to cope then you’re in the stress arena and that’s bad news.
We know stress is a major risk factor for a range of illness from heart disease to immune failures and more and more research is being done on cancer now.
Narration Meanwhile back at the City of
Carolyn Woolley In December 2003 we were running at an average of 10.3 days of sickness per police officer. That’s quite a lot of time that you’re actually losing away from front line policing.
Narration And The Bill weren’t alone. In 2004, stress for the first time replaced backache as the
Professor Cary Cooper We’re talking in the order of 10 billion pounds just due to sickness absence. We’re probably talking about 30 million lost working days and we can’t even put a figure on the health service costs for repairing people damaged by stress which must be astronomical.
Narration But why would stress cause physical illness?
Dr Jonica Newby It’s a mystery that’s long baffled scientists – until, here at the Garvan Institute in
Dr Fabienne Mackay So Jonica, this is the culprit, this is neuropeptidey.
Dr Jonica Newby It doesn’t look very sinister, I have to say.
Dr Fabienne Mackay Well in fact it’s a very tiny molecule – very small.
Narration When we are stressed our nerves and brain cells release large amounts of neuropeptide y.
Dr Fabienne Mackay It’s going to change your mood, you are going to be grumpy, its going to change your appetite – you might overeat or stop eating, it will change your heart rate because when you’re stressed your heart beats higher.
Narration But what no one realised, until Fabienne Mackay’s team made their discovery, is that it also blocks T cells in the immune system.
That’s why the body’s police force can no longer fight off viruses and bugs.
Dr Fabienne MacKay That’s very exciting because in fact this is so powerful at shutting off immune cells.
Narration So if stress can disrupt our body’s natural defences, what is it about the workplace that produces such a powerful effect?
For Alison, the long hours culture on surveillance was a major stressor.
Alison Youles I start in the city at 6 I’d have to be up at quarter to four. So you could be doing 18, 19 hour shifts and back up the next day.
Dr Jonica Newby Alison, this doesn’t sound like a life.
Alison Youles It wasn’t. It was no life.
Professor Cary Cooper We have clear evidence that If you consistently work long hours, you will get ill. And what we’re finding in the developed world is that increasingly the hours are upping that more and more people are working longer and longer .
NarrationNearly half of all
But its not just the hours. Another proven stressor is lack of control over ones working life.
And while studies used to show only those lower down the food chain suffered, that, too, is changing.
Professor Cary Cooper Now that jobs are intrinsically more insecure for everybody – from shop floor to top floor, guess what – the illnesses – stress related illnesses are going up the hierarchy. So now nobody’s safe.
Narration For Alison, eventually, the stress boiled over – into an explosive, no returns argument with her boss.
Alison Youles And I thought what am I going to do, what am I going to do? This is it, over. Everything I’ve worked hard for I’ve just thrown away.
Narration She was out, indefinitely, on stress leave.
So is it too late to turn the juggernaut around?
Well, the City of
They contacted Professor Cooper, who sent in his team. What followed was nothing short of extraordinary.
Professor Cary Cooper OK well I’ll just talk you through the process for doing the stress audit.
Narration Tired of simply shouting from the halls of academe, Cooper had formed a company with a rigorous scientific approach.
Professor Cary Cooper This instrument’s really been thoroughly scientifically looked at, tested on thousands of people …
Narration They pinpointed problems to a microlevel … what department … what issue – bullying, long hours. They then put in a precisely targeted fix – with astonishing results.
In just two years, sickness absence dropped from 10 days per officer, to 6.3.
They also went from being ranked 23rd most productive police force in the
For me, its brilliant from an HR perspective. I’m not saying it’s the only thing that’s made the difference, but clearly during a period where we’ve made a sustained effort to engage with our staff and look after our staff if performance has gone up then it must be linked, it has to be linked, I’m sorry.
The city of
I was off for three months. And since then I haven’t looked back – I’m back in training which I love. And you know what? I’m good, I eat well, I sleep well,I see my dog every night, and I have good bosses.
Narration But that’s just one enlightened workplace. Can we do more, and turn it round for all society?
Well, in an extraordinary and radical move, a
For the first time, stress has been acknowledged as a serious workplace risk.
Dr Jonica Newby That means if an organisation does not deal with its stress problem, the power exists to shut the organisation down.
Professor Cary Cooper They have come up with management standards for stress which are world renowned now, and they are a landmark in the sand. They are saying to all of us that the way in which you manage people can be as damaging if not more damaging than faulty equipment and toxins in the work environment.
Narration And the show of teeth has had a dramatic effect.
In what’s shaping up to a showdown of Dickensian proportions – the world is watching and asking – is this what it will take to slow the stress juggernaut down?