'All you high flyers, ignore the cliff edge at your peril'
Friday, May 10, 2013
Bob Jenkins suddenly realised his head felt hot. Unusually hot. "It was not," he says "the sort of feeling you get with a normal headache. It was like imagining a saucepan full of simmering water, with a broken egg in it. The egg was my brain."
At the time Jenkins was flying high. His print broking business First Impressions Press was doing well, picking up plaudits, growing year-on-year and hitting a turnover of £3.5m in just three years of trading.
He was spending 50% of his time abroad dealing with clients in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, and spending hundreds of thousands of pounds with UK printers and paper suppliers. One of his biggest jobs was a 6m-run catalogue that was required four times a year.
But there was a problem. There was only one Bob Jenkins to handle all this work, and he was reluctant to take on additional staff to cope with the workload. The result was Jenkins becoming so stressed he wound up in a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and effectively losing everything – his business, his marriage and his house.
And though an extreme example, Jenkins’ story is not an isolated or particularly unusual one in the print industry. Take this notionally amusing story about a service engineer who’d spent an extremely frustrating day at a difficult customer trying to fix a piece of printing equipment. He vented this frustration on the way home by driving at speed directly over a row of cones being used to separate a lane on the motorway, resulting in an admonishment from an understandably rather perplexed police officer.
Although no serious harm was done in this instance, with the anecdote perhaps making ideal pub banter fodder for this individual and his colleagues, the issue of stress in print and related industries is clearly a very real one.
First there is the issue of ever tightening deadlines as customers demand quicker and quicker turnarounds and printers have to process more and more work to make, in some instances, dwindling job prices add up to a decent bottom line.
Exacerbating this pressure is the fact that many companies are responding to a tougher trading climate by cutting back on staff, resulting in a perfect storm of fewer people having to process more work. "Print businesses are watching their financial performance closely and are reducing resources by cutting back staff," confirms BPIF human resources adviser Alison Green, who has been running stress workshops since 2004.
Then there is the pressure that reacting to such a quickly evolving industry can bring, adds Green, who explains that a lack of clear direction or objectives, or facing conflicting demands at work, are cited among the key factors that can contribute to harmful levels of stress (see boxout). "Printers are also having to become more innovative, and that puts pressure and stress on teams," she says. "It could simply be the case that people don’t properly understand what they should be doing, which results in stress."
Not that printers should become demoralised in feeling that their industry is a much more stressful place to be than other sectors at the moment. Green reports that her experiences working in the retail sector highlighted similarities between this and the printing industry, similarities down to the fact that retail has also been through a period of substantial change.
Health & Safety Executive statistics on workplace stress show that stress is in fact a big problem for the UK economy overall. According to figures compiled by the Labour Force Survey, work-related stress caused the loss of 10.4m working days in the financial year to March 2012, with the most stressful occupations found to be nursing, teaching and education, and caring personal services. The survey also found that on average, each person took 24 days off work, putting stress in the top three types of work-related injury or illness when it comes to the number of working days lost.
This finding was also born out in a Populus survey for mental health charity Mind, involving some 2,250 adults in England and Wales. Here ‘work life’ was described as a ‘very or quite stressful’ aspect of day-to-day life by 34% of respondents. This placed work into the top spot for stress in that category, ranking above debts and financial problems, which was cited as second-most stressful with 30%.
But printers, or any other business owners for that matter, shouldn’t conclude from this that very high stress levels are just an unavoidable part of working in certain industries, says Green. Although the figures suggest that many companies in the UK are not managing to keep fully on top of being compliant here, employers in fact have a legal duty of care to ensure their employees aren’t subject to unhealthy levels of stress, she says. She warns that if businesses don’t have a coherent strategy and policy for dealing with stress in the workplace, they are potentially opening themselves up to all sorts of problems, be it lost productivity or the potential threat of a claim.
Green cites case law examples where the outcome has proved expensive for businesses that have failed to communicate a stress policy or to have adequate procedures in place for dealing with work-related stress issues, resulting in employee claims for mental impairment. Such cases have involved complainants being awarded sums ranging from £100,000 to more than £800,000 – figures likely to cause their fair share of stress and heart palpitations in the boardroom.
What is needed, then, is a formal stress policy. This should go hand-in-hand with an absence policy, Green believes. She says that the BPIF has a raft of guidance documents and templates that companies can adapt to their own requirements, and that attending one of a range of stress workshops run by the BPIF and others should help managers devise and implement such a formal approach.
And Green is keen to point out that having a stress policy doesn’t automatically mean that employees will see this as carte blanche to take a few days off, citing stress as the reason.
"Sometimes company owners think that if they have a stress policy, then their employees will all go off work with it, when it’s actually the reverse," she says. "If business owners have good policies in place, they remain in control – even if an employee is intent on making a claim, whether genuine or not. With a policy, employees know what will happen and what the support will be."
A key benefit to a stress policy will be having guidelines, so employees understand the support measures available, adds Green. "Everyone can handle a certain amount of pressure, it’s when it turns into stress that it becomes a problem," she explains.
She adds that, as well as having a policy in place for dealing with stress when it does arise, employers should be looking to simple measures which will avoid tensions running high in the first place, such as ensuring line managers are trained to recognise signs of stress in their colleagues.
Bob Jenkins would add that being open about the problem of stress and ensuring people suffering aren’t stigmatised, is of paramount importance. Happily recovered today, and reviving his print broking career through a new venture, PrintPlus, Jenkins urges anyone who is affected by stress to make sure they take advantage of all the support networks available.
"There is, unfortunately, always going to be stigma concerning mental illness, born simply out of ignorance," he says, explaining that he hopes, by speaking out, to lessen the hold of this stigma and reduce the taboo that surrounds stress and mental health issues.
The key to combatting stress in the workplace is, then, to first acknowledge that it exists and can be a problem if left unaddressed. This way print bosses can look at ways of alleviating stress where possible and acting fast where an employee is showing signs of feeling the strain.
And key to this strategy should of course be empowering staff to speak out about unreasonably stressful situations and to deal calmly with these situations where pressure can’t be avoided. In this way, employees too can take responsibility for managing stress. They can heed warnings such as this to the industry from Bob Jenkins: "To all you high-flyers out there, ignore the cliff edge at your peril," he says. "You have been warned!"
What causes harmful levels of stress?
Harmful levels of stress are most likely to occur where:
- Pressures pile on top of each other or are prolonged
- People feel trapped or unable to exert any control over the demands placed on them
- People are confused by conflicting demands made on them
Problems at work can be triggered or made worse where:
- Employees feel a high degree of uncertainty about their work, their objectives or their job and career prospects
- Work schedules are inflexible and over-demanding
- There is prolonged staff conflict, including possibly sexual or racial harassment, or bullying, or where staff are treated with contempt or indifference
- There is a lack of understanding and leadership from managers or supervisors
- Physical conditions in the working environment cause stress. These can include excessive noise, heat, humidity, vibration and the pressure of toxic or dangerous materials as well as other obvious workplace hazards, which might not be adequately controlled
For further information, visit www.britishprint.com
Five ways to wellbeing
- Connect with the people around you including family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day
- Be active Go for a walk, run or cycle. Play a game or take up gardening or dance. Exercising makes you feel good so its important to discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness
- Take notice Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you
- Keep learning Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun. You might want to rediscover an old interest, sign up for a course, fix a bike, learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving
- Give Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you
For further information visit: www.mind.org.uk
Source: New Economics Foundation/Mind
Top tips for employers
- If you carry out regular staff surveys, consider including questions that will help gauge the mental wellbeing of your workplace. Alternatively, engage an organisation such as Mind to carry out a stress audit
- If you don’t already have one, formulate a company-wide stress policy. This should be communicated across the organisation. The BPIF can help, and the federation also runs stress workshops (often held off-site, with representatives from a variety of companies sharing experiences), that give managers the tools and know-how to implement the policy
- Communicate staff responsibilities and expectations clearly. This will help workers achieve the organisation’s goals
- Manage workloads among your staff by prioritising and delegating tasks. Make sure no one is expected to deliver more than they are capable of
- Are working areas suitable for the task? Noise, temperature and light levels can have a big impact on wellbeing
- Promote positive working relationships. Bullying, harassment and negativity are detrimental to a successful working environment
- Train managers to recognise situations likely to cause stress, the symptoms of stress and ways to relieve it – both in themselves and other staff members
- Encourage disclosure within the workforce – employees need to feel confident that they can be open about health issues and that they will be taken seriously
- Use return to work interviews after sickness absence to identify any underlying stress-related reasons for absence
- Anxiety, stress and depression that have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an employee’s day-to-day activities may amount to a disability. Employers have a legal obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to make appropriate reasonable adjustments
- Introduce yourself to staff. How many people do you work with who you’ve never spoken to? Talking regularly to all your employees could give you a better sense of what is happening on the ground
Source: BPIF, Mind