Despite the pressures of engineering, the number of people taking more than four weeks off work in a single episode – known as long-term sickness absence – because of stress has fallen in manufacturing by 25% in the past five years.
Every year the EEF conducts an annual survey of members about sickness absence and rehabilitation. Figures released this year suggest that half as many employers named stress as one of the top three causes of long-term sickness absence in 2010 compared to 2006.
Part of this trend could be because doctors are increasingly using more precise terms to describe stress-related illness, such as anxiety and depression, says the report. But this is unlikely as there has been no corresponding rise in the number of reports of other mental illnesses.
The recent fall in stress-related absence comes as the number of sick days taken by staff for any cause over the past five years has also declined. In 2010, the average number of sick days taken by staff of EEF member organisations was five, down from 6.7 in 2007. Also, manufacturers that are not EEF members have reportedly seen a drop in absences owing to stress.
The fall in stress appears to be unique to manufacturing. “This has not been seen in the public sector or anywhere else. Something is being done right in manufacturing,” says Khan.
The EFF has done much over the years to convince employers that stress is a problem and that it can be managed. Engaging organisations and line managers with the issues surrounding stress in a way that is familiar to them has been at the heart of this strategy.
“We stopped calling it stress because engineers didn’t like that,” says Khan. Instead the group used the phrase “work organisation” to get people on board. Using processes similar to those found in lean manufacturing, the strategy looks at how employees’ work is organised and whether changes could help staff to perform more effectively and subsequently mitigate stress.
A questionnaire that asks employees to rate aspects of work on a scale of one to five helps to gauge the health of staff and working environments. The areas covered in the assessment include employees’ relationships with managers and colleagues, whether they feel valued, how they rate the environment of the workplace, and their workload and work-home balance.
The results can be used to flag any trouble areas that may be developing in managers’ blind-spots. Accompanying guidance then helps employers nip any problems in the bud before they adversely affect staff. It is likely that taking a proactive approach to the proportion of the workforce who are on the verge of difficulty is driving the decline in stress rates, says Khan.
Schaeffler UK is one of the companies that has been using the EEF’s work organisation questionnaire to monitor employees’ stress levels. Adrian Roberts, HR director at the firm, says that stress is less of a problem in the 350-strong workforce than it used to be.
Absenteeism in the company has fallen from 4% to just over 1% in recent years. During this time the company has put several measures in place to help employees to manage levels of workplace stress.
Although these have been successful, Roberts says it is not likely that the 3% fall in absenteeism is entirely down to better stress management among employees. “But having these safety nets in place helps,” he adds.