Work-related stress now represents one of the greatest occupational health problems in the European Union.
When half of the roughly 150 million employees in Europe now feel exposed to substantial pressure at work, the damage to companies and the economy is considerable: The EU estimates the material costs alone which are caused by stress at the workplace at roughly €20 billion every year in the Community.
Increasing work intensification, excessive work and pressure from deadlines mean that increasing numbers of employees no longer feel they can cope with the work assigned to them. Equally, too little work, monotony and a lack of communication and information also cause stress. Often workers feel there is no sense in their work and that they are not appropriately "rewarded" by their employer for their commitment.
When employees nowadays hear less and less "That's your personal problem", then it is due to the fact that companies are increasingly supporting them not only with individual stress management programmes but also by having a keen focus on the working conditions, e.g. work organisation, equipment and work environment, in order to exert a positive influence on their economic success.
As a result, supporting individual resources and the healthy design of the working environment are becoming a task for management. If supervisors above all have a crucial influence on their employees' perception of stress, then they assume a key position in this connection and they are called upon to act as honourable examples and multipliers.
The exchange of experience between the members of the Enterprise for Health (EfH) network led to the following conclusions:
- Greater focus on a widespread phenomenon: The intensification of work
Work intensification has a considerable impact on the health in a company, productivity and competitiveness. While the health consequences are already being discussed in depth in the public debate, the effects on innovation and learning have so far been neglected: People under great pressure from work are finding less and less time for learning and personal development. New and innovative ideas therefore fall by the wayside.
- Mental health: The Achilles' heel of a knowledge-based economy
Political and company decision-makers have long since agreed that qualifications and knowledge have become the decisive competitive advantage worldwide. People are the bearers of this valuable capital. With their abilities and creativity "knowledge workers" represent a crucial competitive factor: adapting to unforeseen changes. If companies do not look after the health of their employees appropriately in view of the increasing work strains, they are exacerbating the vulnerability of their own economic basis: the quality of human capital.
- Task of a value-oriented management
A leadership declaration is necessary on the development, design and maintenance of a healthy working environment which enables the workforce to meet the demands imposed by work and their private life and which will, at the same time, ensure a successful company development. Management and a leadership style which are based on appropriate values sets the course for everyone in the company and creates a common identity. Value-oriented companies are based on cost-efficiency as well as on trust and fairness. This successful combination is the cornerstone of all business relationships, whether internal as regards the employees, or external as regards the customers or shareholders. Trust and fairness are the key resources for sustainable success in the economy and society and the mainstays for company health.
- A step towards a healthy company
In the past, workplace health promotion often concentrated on the individual behaviour of the employees. Healthy companies are now going one step further: They are also looking after the ability of each individual not only to be and remain prepared for change in times of upheaval but also to be able to actively support such change. This approach combines work organisation, work design, supportive leadership, learning, innovation and health.
"The economies of companies – and ultimately countries – depend more and more on the contribution of ‘knowledge workers’. If organisations fail to recognise, or take appropriate steps to mitigate, the damaging effects of work intensification and other stressors on these and other employees, then it follows that the organisation’s future could be in jeopardy."
Dr. Graham Lowe, The Graham Lowe Group Inc., Canada
(Keynote Speaker, EfH Business Meeting "Mental Health and Leadership", October 13 - 14, 2003, Mondragon, Spain)