An on-site masseur sounds wonderful, but is it the solution to stress in the workplace? Not quite, says Angelique Ruzicka, although it’s a stroke in the right direction

Almost 29 million people – or nearly two-thirds of UK adults – feel more stressed, less fit and more prone to illness than they did three years ago.

That’s the finding of the Britain under Pressure report, by Friends Provident and the UK Blood Pressure Association, which is based on a survey of 2,700 adults across the UK.

The research also reveals that concerns about the credit crunch have left 37% of adults worrying more, 19% sleeping less and 15% working longer hours.

So what can you do to prevent you and your staff from succumbing to recessionary stress? Perhaps a Pilates class followed by an Indian head massage, Reiki healing session, blood pressure test, fat distribution check and lifestyle advice. DAS Group, which specialises in legal expenses insurance, has introduced all of these to keep its employees fit and happy.

DAS is not alone. Businesses across the country have had to rethink how to handle an increasingly strung-out workforce.

“The obvious cause of stress is redundancy, which puts staff under enormous personal pressure,” says Helen Toll, health and safety consultant at Norwich Union Risk Services.

“Cuts in numbers also mean those still in work may feel the demands upon them are increasing.”

In a recent company report, Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at AXA PPP healthcare, warned that cutting out services designed to support employees is likely to cost more in the long run.

“The economic downturn is having an adverse effect on the nation’s health,” he said. “Nevertheless, there are plenty of services to help combat the problem.”

Common symptoms of stress include irritability and withdrawal, low productivity and taking time off work. The Stress Management Society says more than 105 million days are lost to stress each year, costing UK employers £1.24bn. According to Health and Safety Executive figures on work-related stress, depression or anxiety affected 442,000 people in 2007/8.

Before DAS launched its “WellWise” initiative, it struggled with spiralling absenteeism. “But last month was our lowest sickness rate since March 2004,” says Jo Phillips, the company’s human resources manager.

The trick, she says, is to prevent stress rather than react to it. WellWise – which offers exercise, relaxation classes and other health services on site to its 550 employees – aims to do just that.

One employee praises the WellWise lifestyle clinic. “It provided me with a valuable moment to assess my lifestyle – without it being at a time when I felt unwell, as is usual with a doctor’s appointment. I’ve made a conscious effort to look at my lifestyle and currently feel better as a result.”

The initiative cost the group £7,354 last year, but Phillips says the investment has paid off. “We spent money on various things like equipment for the lifestyle clinics, and blood pressure kits. But if you think how absenteeism rates have come down, it’s more or less paid for itself.”

Other companies tackle stress according to the calendar. Allianz, for instance, has split its stress management course over four quarters and set four themes.

The first looks at managing and recognising the symptoms of stress, says Banu Gajendran, the insurer’s occupational health and safety manager. The second quarter is about influencing lifestyle, the third is about increasing physical activity in the workplace and the fourth, “in the quiet winter months”, focuses on the workplace environment and ergonomics.

This month, the insurer is introducing “well-being awareness week” and will bring in massage therapists, acupressure specialists, reflexologists and stress managers.

But Toll agrees that it’s better to stop stress before it starts. “[Massage therapy] deals with the symptoms. What organisations need to do is work out the root causes of stress and try to prevent it. It might be more useful to provide training and awareness, or access to a confidential counselling service.

“Stress should be seen as an organisational problem – not as an individual’s problem or as a sign of weakness ... Good stress management is good people management. It’s not rocket science. It’s about supporting staff and setting realistic deadlines and giving staff opportunities to discuss workloads.” IT