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Workplace Stress Is Costing European Businesses Billions How can we help tackle this epidemic?

By Gemma Leigh Roberts

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As our brain's alarm reaction system, moderate levels of stress can help spring us into action, but this survival mechanism takes a toll on the body. Today, the problem we face is too much stress, partly due to a shift to hustle-focused and burnout-inducing working cultures across Europe.

The chronic uncertainty of Brexit is making this worse for British workers, having reportedly led to the highest stress levels in recent years. On top of this, working hours are continuing to rise. Traditional working hours are 37 hours a week in the UK, but 20.1 percent of its working population tend to work 45 hours or more per week.

The cause: we built a burn-out culture.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classified burn-out as a legitimate medical diagnosis, resulting from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." The WHO suggests that doctors can now diagnose people with burnout if they have: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job and reduced professional efficacy.

No surprise that the new WHO classification of burn-out makes it clear that it "refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context." The problem of work-related stress is a unique one as the lines between work and life continue to blurr.

How much is Europe losing to stress?

In the UK alone, 595,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety last year according to a Labour Force Survey (LFS). This led to a total of 15.4 million lost working days and an estimated cost of £13.5 million. On a European level, the figure goes into billions -- the last deep-dive by the European Commission was in 2002, when the cost of work-related stress in the EU-15 was estimated to be €20 billion a year.

Workplace stress affects productivity, mostly through absenteeism and employees coming into work when they really should have been resting and healing.

Employees are losing out too by being unable to cope with excessive stress and demands from their jobs. As the LFS puts it, prolonged stress can lead to mental health problems and people with these conditions can go on to "develop serious physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal problems."

There are no winners when it comes to the burn-out and stress phenomenon we are dealing with today. With that in mind, how can we make a difference?

Entrepreneurs can help tackle the stress problem.

The first priority for entrepreneurs who employ any number of people is to adapt their company culture, leadership and management to promote wellbeing. This means letting workers leave on time, building in time to socialise and implementing wellbeing allowances or benefits.

It's also paramount to have help available for employees and colleagues to be able to manage stress when it does occur. Often this involves helping the individual notice the signals of when stress becomes too much, what the tipping point is and coming up with a solution together.

But for this to have a long-term impact in the workplace, we need more than one-off initiatives. Every entrepreneur should take note from other regions in Europe that take stress management and prevention seriously.

Nordic countries are well-known for repeatedly topping the annual Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Better Life Index. Denmark in particular is lauded for having a better work-life balance than any other country in the world. The country doesn't have a long working hours' culture, which in itself can be the antidote to workplace burnout. Since companies in Denmark are also smaller in scale, there is less of a hierarchical system, which naturally leads to an element of trusts for their employees to deliver.

While a lot of the Danish working rules are backed up by legislation, companies are also willing to take wellbeing matters into their own hands. For example, the Financial Times reported that Danish companies Novozymes and Statoil tap into their workforce to promote workplace health. Leadership relies on elected working life reps to regularly inform them on what employees' needs are on everything from nutrition and exercise to work-life balance.

Beyond Scandinavia, the French government gave workers the right to disconnect in 2017, demanding that companies with over 50 employees block out specific times of the day when no work emails are allowed to be sent. This was enforced a year later when Rentokil Initial was ruled to have broken the law and was ordered to pay a worker €60,000.

The rest of us can no longer wait for government to play catch up on the stress epidemic, we must take the aforementioned initiatives in France and the Nordics as good examples to follow and apply in our own organisations.

As entrepreneurs, we have a duty to ensure our colleagues are healthier, which will lead to a more productive workforce and eventually, a more profitable business.

Gemma Leigh Roberts

Founder of Career Compass Club

Gemma Leigh Roberts is founder of Career Compass Club. As an organizational and performance psychologist, she has worked with global organizations (Amazon, Facebook, Disney, Starbucks), focusing on performance, career transitions and creating career success.
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