With the financial sector particularly exposed to the fragile economy, it’s not surprising that many employees are suffering from stress. What is to be done?

Is your work making you feel irritable? Is one of your colleagues starting to look a bit dishevelled and spending a bit too much time in the pub? If the answer is ‘yes’, you or your workmate may be suffering from workplace stress.

You are not alone. According to recent research by recruitment company Michael Page, four out of 10 insurance professionals answered that they “often feel stressed at work”. The same survey also reveals that nearly half of those working in the insurance industry had felt so stressed that they had “called in sick to work just to avoid going in”.

The question is: why are people employed in the insurance industry getting so stressed out? And what can employers do to reduce the risk of staff becoming stressed?

International Stress Management Association director Jenny Edwards says insurance professionals are getting stressed because the financial sector as a whole is “under huge pressure”. “The financial crisis means that the financial sector is struggling with the fear of redundancy,” she adds. The fact that some companies in the financial sector have said redundancies will be spread out over a number of years – and that in some cases they will include not replacing people who retire or choose to leave – does not make it any easier for staff, says Edwards. “The feeling is the axe is hovering and people are thinking their time is up.”

Risk factors

According to the Health & Safety Executive, there are six factors that can lead to work-related stress, which resulted in 9.8 million working days being lost in the UK in 2009/10. These involve staff:

• feeling unable to cope with the demands of their job;

• not having a say in the way they do their work;

• not receiving adequate support from colleagues and superiors;

• being subjected to unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying;

• not understanding their role and responsibilities; and

• not being engaged when an organisation is undergoing change.

According to Edwards, change in particular is handled badly by the financial sector. “People feel disempowered and poorly communicated with, and feel that change is foisted upon them,” she says. She adds that redundancies can also result in the demands of an employee’s job increasing beyond their ability to meet them, as “work is distributed among less and less people”.

Edwards highlights the following as symptoms of stress: minor ailments, irritability, poor memory, dishevelled appearance, drinking more or a change in eating habits. In addition, “presenteeism” is another stress-related phenomenon. “This is when people turn up for work but are ineffective because they are stressed,” explains Edwards.

Productivity and morale are affected by presenteeism she says and, consequently, it “costs one and a half times more than absenteeism”. She explains that people will come to work even when they are ill because “they fear poor attendance could count against them when decisions are made on redundancies – this has an effect on colleagues who may have to pick up the slack”.

Unite’s national officer for the finance sector, Dave Fleming, says finance is a stressful place to work at the moment because it has a bad reputation. “It’s fat cats with huge bonuses that have caused the problem, but it’s people on the front line – such as those working in call centres – who are being vilified and getting abuse because the [public’s] instinct is to rant and rave at them. But the people doing this work are citizens like you and me; they’re not the guardians of the economy,” he says.

Fleming says employers could do more to help staff working in financial sector call centres. “A lot of these calls are monitored, so there could be more sensitivity and protection [for call centre workers],” he says.

According to Doug Russell, health and safety officer at union USDAW, the tighter regulation of the insurance sector in recent years has added to employees’ stress. “Stress levels are partly due to job insecurity, but this is compounded by stricter regulation – there’s more pressure on employees to pass exams,” he says.

What can insurance brokers do to reduce the risk of their staff suffering from stress? Dundee-based broker Clark Thomson works in conjunction with Working Health Services Dundee to offer occupational health services for employees. Clark Thomson staff suffering from stress, or any other ailment, can refer themselves, or be referred by a manager, to the service, which offers confidential stress counselling in addition to physiotherapy. Clark Thompson’s group health and safety adviser Stewart Falconer says that, without the service, a number of staff would have had to take time off. “The service enables a quicker return to work, and I’ve had a lot of supportive emails [from staff],” he says.

Duty of care

Broker Eastwood & Partners’ health and safety adviser, John Jones, says employers should monitor their staff and check whether they are having to take on heavier workloads. “If the firm is cutting the number of employees, check if this is resulting in people having to do more – also check if employees are bringing in stresses from home.”

Edwards points out that, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers have a duty to assess the risk of “stress-related ill health arising from work activities”. She says it is important to train managers to “promote a management style of participation, delegation, constructive feedback, mentoring and coaching”. She adds: “It needs

to come from the top down. It needs to be recognised that we need to manage stress, as it’s expensive when people are off because of it.” IT

Case study: broker under stress

One insurance broker began suffering from stress after a new computer system was introduced at the firm where he worked. Not long after the new system was implemented, a manager at the firm noticed that one of the employees had become “quiet and uncommunicative”. The manager spoke to him and asked if there were any problems that may be affecting his performance.

The employee – whose case is cited in the ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) guide entitled Stress at Work – had not got to grips with the new software. Further discussions revealed that the employee had particular difficulties with some applications that only he, and a small number of other staff, were required to use.

Furthermore, it transpired that the applications in question had not been covered in the firm’s training programme. Despite this, the employee said he “hadn’t wished to make a fuss” as he felt he was “just being a bit slower than the others to pick things up”.

The employer provided further training for staff using the new system and this solved the problem.