According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Nottingham and University of Ulster, work related stress increases by 40% during a recession, affecting 1 in 4 workers. Furthermore, researchers found that the number of workers who take time off, as a result of work-related stress, increased by 25%, and that total time off, as result of this type of stress, rose by more than one third during an economic downturn. The study is published today in the scientific journal, Occupational Medicine.

The results act as a wakeup call for employees and employers, during a time when forecasts of Britain’s economic prospects indicate a ‘double-dip’ recession. According to claims made by The Society of Occupational Medicine, companies should use occupational health services or risk long term damage to their productivity.

Dr. Henry Goodall, President of the Society of Occupational Medicine, explained:

“Occupational health provision is even more important in times of recession as specialists can help with the stress caused by mounting workloads, organizational change and job uncertainty. We can help businesses look at how they manage stress levels and improve the working environment for workers.”

The researchers surveyed tens of thousands of civil servants in Northern Ireland in 2005 (before the recession), and again in 2009, whilst the economy was severely hit, and compared the findings.

The researchers examined job demands which support workers felt they had from managers, and control over work, in order to evaluate how exposed survey respondents were to the pressures of work. In addition, the team measured workers perceptions of how stressed they were at work, as well as the duration of time taken off work, as a result of work-related stress. Results from the study show that it is vital to pay attention to the looking after of workers’ mental health and wellbeing during a recession.

Lead author of the study, Jonathan Houdmont, said:

“We were fortunate to have access to staff survey data collected before the emergence of initial signs of a forthcoming recession and again four years later at the height of the recession. The stark differences in the responses given at these two time points clearly show that national economic crises can have substantial implications for workers’ health and organizational performance.

The findings suggest that those businesses which seek to reduce work-related stress during austere economic times are likely to experience lower staff absence and greater productivity.”

One company to recognize this issue and be proactive in this area is BT. BT group health advisor, Catherine Kilfedder, explained:

“BT has a wealth of information and support for its people and families on many aspects of health and wellbeing, including the impact of the recession and stress. When the recession first hit, we partnered with Relate to make additional support available to employees across the UK, in the form of confidential web chat with counsellors. We continue to promote and develop our resources in these difficult times.”

The most prevalent reasons for individuals starting to claim long-term sickness benefits are anxiety and depression. Senior management teams can play a vital role in assisting individuals return to work by investing in occupational health services. Not only will investing in occupational health services enhance overall performance of individual employees and the organization, it will also lower the cost of sickness absence.

Occupational health doctors and nurses are trained to evaluate if an individual is able to do their job. By understanding the nature of the work and the specific tasks than an employee does, they can assist employers destroy the obstacles that prevent employees returning to work.

Occupational health staff can examine the context in which an individual has become sick and offer a holistic approach, something which is hard to do in the 7-minute consultation at a GP surgery.

According to Dr. Goodall, effective communication is just as vital as providing good occupational health services.

“When recession hits, management needs to be pro-active in letting staff know what is happening so that they remove any uncertainty. When people are worried about their job security they can sometimes over interpret signals and hold irrational beliefs. Clear and timely communication is vital.”

Written by Grace Rattue