A quick glance over the figures underlines the importance of managing stress;
more than 13 million working days are lost each year at an estimated cost to
business of £3.8 billion per annum. It seems employers may be able to learn
something from Somerset County Council who have implemented reforms aimed at
reducing stress within their working environment saving them nearly £2 million
per year in reduced absences as a result.

A quality of working life survey, conducted by Robertson Cooper, was commissioned
to provide a comprehensive view of the issues across the organisation. It was
designed to identify the nature of employee stress, rather than focusing solely
on the symptoms of stress and the strain on the Council's resources through
sickness absence.

Although employers are often guilty of centring their policies around the
financial cost of absences, Somerset CC encouraged a proactive approach and
put in place reactive procedures to tackle stress, boost productivity and ensure
the well being of their workforce. A training programme was developed for senior
managers and specific absence management training provided. They also implemented
a change of emphasis in its occupational health contract to be more nurse-led.

The Council spent a total of £390,000 on the survey and the implementation
of the measures however, made a net saving of £1.5 million overall. But again
the Council is not focussing solely on the financial savings; Peter Rowe, Head
of HR at Somerset CC believes that the heightened awareness of stress, now
imbedded into the organisation, is one of the principal benefits.

Employers often struggle to be convinced by the theory of reducing stress
in the workplace and it has to be said that the measures taken by Somerset
CC may not work for all employers. Perhaps the overriding principles are to
intervene early and then maintain ongoing contact. The likelihood of people
returning to work diminishes markedly after more than six weeks absence through
stress. Early intervention can ensure that the employee is aware of the support
systems available at work including the possibility of agreeing return-to-work
plans such as shorter hours initially and workplace adjustments.

Employees should be consulted on the implementation of stress policies to
ensure their 'buy-in' and also to devise a policy that is tailored to the needs
of the particular workforce. Systems should be put in place that encourage
regular sharing of information between staff and management, early detection
of inappropriate workloads or lack of skills and frequent airing of any concerns.

While dealing with stress in the workplace is a difficult issue, it is one
that cannot be ignored and, as witnessed here, adopting a proactive approach
may lead to significant improvements in staff sickness levels, productivity
and workforce morale.

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