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Workplace stress

By PJ STEVENS Published 25th Jul 2014
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Sir Michael Marmot is Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. He was also the lead scientist on a government sponsored survey of Civil Servants called the Whitehall II Study, so called because it followed on from a study called Whitehall I. Whitehall II started in 1984 and has been ongoing to today's date as it has run in phases. It's currently on Phase 11. So far more than 10,000 people have participated.

I hope I haven't lost you with that summary because this is a very important study. You can find out more about its background on Wikipedia. It is probably the most scientific and in depth study on the effects of work that has yet been undertaken. There's a very good interview with Sir Michael Marmot on the BBC.

The study has reached a number of very important conclusions. It has found links between stress at work and such issues as disease, including heart disease and some cancers. Links with domestic violence, obesity, smoking, reduced leisure time and exercise have been made.

Importantly, the study challenges the myth of executive stress. 'It's tough at the top' goes the old truism. In fact, the study has found that it's actually tougher at the bottom. Many of the stress factors identified are linked to low status. 

The study has started a number of interesting conversations. Some have pointed at the link between low status and the body's use of the chemical cortisol which causes numerous health problems. If you are told what to do and feel forced to do it, regardless of ideas you might have about how to better do the task, the body releases cortisol in a stress response.

This may seem counterintuitive. It's commonly believed that having the power to make decisions, being the person at the top, is stressful. In fact, one of the tests in the ongoing study found that junior grade employees displayed higher levels of cortisol in their bloodstream 30 minutes after waking up than their more senior counterparts. One conclusion was that they were anticipating the day ahead and not particularly relishing it.

Sir Michael Marmot has been very involved in this area, both through this study and the broader work that he has done over his career. He points out that the Nordic countries take stress very seriously and, in the workplace, it's considered on a similar level to physical and chemical risk. As a result stress levels in those countries is markedly lower and they regularly come out at the top of standard of living and work / life balance surveys.

Marmot identifies three situations which cause stress in the workplace. When combined they form a toxic set of working conditions that can damage the health of those experiencing them;

1. Lack of control.

2. High demand.

3. Low support.

In the UK we are, compared to some other countries, not very good at dealing with workplace stress. We could do better. There seems to be an acceptance, an idea that we have to accept this situation for the sake of a productive economy.

The success of countries such as Norway and Sweden show that this is untrue. The problem is that the people who could make changes are not, in spite of the 'tough at the top' mantra, the ones who are experiencing the stress. It's the lower status workers, whose leaders should be looking after them, who are bearing the burden.

The solution seems to be to take stress more seriously. If we accept that there are things that can be done, for example more support and better training, then we should be able to take stress as seriously as a risk as we do chemical and physical risks. 

The result would be that stress would become the responsibility of the managers rather than a weakness of the workforce. Change would follow.

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