Stressing the positive

Attempting to quantify the impact of stress isn\'t much easier than trying to measure the proverbial piece of string. For example, at one extreme research from Legal & General has discovered that nearly a third of British workers are feeling stressed by their daily routine while at the other, PruHealth found that well over three quarters of British people are feeling under some degree of stress. Much obviously depends on how these surveys actually define stress.

But no-one is in any doubt that stress-related problems are increasing as a direct result of the onset of recession. HSA, for example, reports a 236 per cent increase in demand for telephone counselling via its free 24 hour helpline over the 12 months to October 2008, and AXA PPP healthcare is experiencing twice as many finance and debt related calls on its employee assistance programme (EAP) as it was six months ago. And all the indicators are that it will get worse.

Whilst there is no magic wand available for intermediaries hoping to instantly relieve their clients of stress problems in the workplace, there are a number of steps that can be taken to build resilience to stress and hopefully increase productivity. Some of these steps don’t have to cost clients anything and many will earn no immediate commission for advisers. But the goodwill created could well pay dividends once the economy picks up again.

Although blue chip organisations tend to have access to all the stress advice they need via their occupational health and HR departments, SMEs frequently don’t even have a grasp of the fundamentals of the subject, and intermediaries are well placed to bring them up to speed.

An essential starting point is to ensure that every client has a formal stress policy. Cash strapped small businesses need look no further than the sample policy provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Attention should also be drawn to the HSE’s stress management standards. Both these and the sample policy can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/stress.

By simply passing on a little common sense advice and lending a sympathetic ear, IFAs can also largely negate the need for small businesses to fork out on fees for business psychologists and other consultants.

Kate Keenan, managing consultant at Bath based business psychologists Keenan Research, says: “Firms rarely let lower level staff know what will be happening, and uncertainty creates stress. So, as far as is commercially possible, employers should let people know what is happening as soon as they can. If redundancies may be occurring in a few months time then let them know now. Apart from anything else, doing so can save you paying redundancy money to the brighter ones who jump ship, and can avoid people leaving on bad terms.

“If people don’t know what’s happening they will start making things up anyway, so rumours will begin to circulate. Half the battle is talking things through and getting a reality check of what is actually happening because stress is largely a reaction to fear, and the situation isn’t always as bad as everyone thinks. Advisers can certainly fulfil this role and can make sure employers put some effort into organising inexpensive or free bonding events. The more people get to know each other and see each other as rounded personalities the more likely they are to support each other.”

Advisers can also warn employers about the dangers of a couple of vicious circles that many businesses are becoming victims of during the current downturn. Both are adding to the problem of presenteeism (productivity loss while at work due to distraction, worry and other factors external to the workplace ) which can be many times more costly than absenteeism.

One such problem commonly pointed to is that sick employees are becoming reluctant to take time off work as a result of fearing that doing so will make them more vulnerable to redundancy. Indeed, research commissioned this August by HSA found that 76 per cent of HR professionals are anticipating this being a problem.

Richard Halley, head of sales at HSA, says “Employees who are ill should not be coming to work, because they could make wrong decisions or spread germs to colleagues. So employers must be very clear what they want them to do. If, for example, they have a bad cold they should be told to take 24 to 48 hours off and perhaps to do some light work from home.”

A further vicious circle is created where employees who are stressed about their finances cut back on eating healthy food and on taking exercise. Research commissioned this August by Friends Provident, for example, finds that 56 per cent of people are buying cheaper food, 15 per cent are cutting spending on fresh fruit and vegetables and 21 per cent have cut back on visiting the gym.

Tal Gilbert, head of research and development at PruHealth, says “People who are saying they are living an unhealthy lifestyle are twice as likely to report feeling stressed, and this is consistent with academic research showing exercise is a very good way of building resilience to stress. Our claims statistics show that if you exercise twice a week or more you are 35 per cent less likely to claim for a psychiatric condition and half as likely to feel stressed.”

IFAs should ensure that employers with existing private medical insurance (PMI) and group risk schemes are aware of any facilities available providing wellness advice and tools to assess stress levels. They must also make sure that income protection clients are aware of the importance of notifying insurers as soon as possible about employee health problems.

Legal & General reports that employers that notify it during the fourth to sixth week of an illness or injury can reduce their absence rates by 21 per cent. Similarly, a recent sample examined by Aegon UK found that cases tracked after four weeks returned 71 per cent of people back to work within the income protection scheme’s deferred period – typically of six months – but when the company received notification later than four weeks this dropped to 41 per cent.

In cases where clients do actually have funds available to invest in combating stress, IFAs can offer debt counselling services for employees, arrange stress audits and stress training for line managers and ensure that PMI includes psychiatric cover. Perhaps most importantly of all, they should ensure that employers have an EAP to provide stress counselling – but even EAPs don’t have to involve a direct cost because they are sometimes add-ons to other products.

Colin Micklewright, head of business development for income protection at Canada Life, says: “An EAP is certainly a good start for combating stress. Industry research suggests that it can provide a return on investment of between four and 19 times the spend and that those who have benefited from an EAP intervention can achieve an improvement in their performance at work of around 50 per cent.”

Employers with money to spend may also be interested in taking a more proactive approach to combating stress. EnergiseYou, which provides onsite chair massages, workplace assessments and yoga sessions, reports a huge surge of interest from companies with between 20 and 200 employees. 57 per cent of employees who have regularly had its onsite chair massage say it has improved productivity, 71 per cent say it has increased motivation levels and 72 per cent say it has reduced stress levels.

With the economic environment likely to get worse before it gets better, stress will clearly be an increasing problem for the foreseeable future and IFAs should realise that they don’t need a degree in psychology to make a positive contribution towards combating it. They should also be aware that being unable to advise on the basics of stress management could create a few sleepless nights of their own if clients decide to switch to advisers who can.

Stress solutions need not cost the earth

Adviser view – Stephen Hackett, Health & Risk Benefits Director, PIFC Consulting

National employee benefit consultancy PIFC Consulting has addressed stress issues with at least a third of its clients during the last two years, with most demand coming from companies with between 250 and 2,500 staff.

It handles everything from risk assessments, staff interviews and health education to the provision of head massages and alcohol and smoking cessation programmes. Nevertheless, many of its key messages about combating stress do not require clients to make any investment.

For example, the five HR consultants in PIFC Consulting’s team place great importance on the need for employers to tighten up absence management reporting and to conduct consistent return to work interviews and exit interviews. They also highlight that it is good practice for companies to make their policy on stress transparent and to communicate it on the intranet, in staff handbooks and in induction packs.

Stephen Hackett, health and risk benefits director of PIFC Consulting, says “Don’t forget that there are a lot of free facilities out there attached to the group risk products themselves. As well as offering EAPs and online wellness facilities, when a significant number of online forms are completed the main providers will typically give a free report about employee attitudes towards the company’s culture. This can identify the stress hotspots and the initiatives necessary to address them. “