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Designing in the stress factor

Careers Stress

Stress is a big issue for UK business. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), 5M workers identify stress as a problem and 500,000 people suffer from a stress related illnesses. As a result, British firms lose 6.5M working days and £3.8bn in revenue every year.

This is far from being about whinging and sciving - stress affects us all.

But what can construction firms do to help? One approach is to give employees more control over their work and over ways of beating stress. A recent conference - Insights 2001 - organised by management consultancy Ceridian Europe, brought together a number of alternative health practitioners who had a range of solutions to help employees. Methods include Tai Chi exercise, changes to diet, using drama to promote relaxation and breath control.

Dr David Beales, a former GP and head of medical research at the Bristol Cancer Health Centre, says that established scientific research lies behind many of the therapies on offer. His organisation, Balance Health Solutions, has developed two new ways of measuring the early effects of stress.

'We can look at both breathing performance and heart rate, ' he says. 'Both are early warning signs. When someone is in fight or flight mode, for instance, they will overbreathe - and we can measure this in someone who is not yet showing other symptoms of stress.'

Beales believes flexibility and understanding from employers is the key, together with giving people a preventive strategy for coping with stress. 'To do this, you need to understand the mind/body link, ' he says. 'It's the best response to the inevitable pressures of working life.'

His views find some favour with the HSE, but Dr Elizabeth Gibby, head of the psycho-social issues policy unit, points out that stress is fundamentally a health and safety issue, and construction firms need a clear strategy to deal with it.

'Complementary therapies can help alleviate the symptoms of stress, but employers who only offer these aren't tackling the real problem, ' she warns.

To help deal with the issue, the HSE has brought out two guides this year. A full version for managers - Tackling work related stress - is available from HSE Books, price £7.95, and a shorter version for employees is available from the HSE Infoline, free of charge.

Sue Salmon, a human resources manager at John Mowlem, agrees that firms need to develop strategies to support employees. 'We are in the process of introducing stress guidelines for managers, ' she says. 'The aim is partly to train them to identify stress-related behaviour problems, such as loss of temper or a general decline in performance, and to help them open up lines of communication with staff.'

It is also essential that engineers admit to feeling stressed, rather than trying to tough it out, says Salmon. 'There is a macho side to this industry, so we tell managers that stress is something which could affect them, as well as their staff.'

However, Salmon does not see alternative therapy as the answer.

'I might ask someone who was stressed whether they had tried physical exercise to help, ' she says. 'I researched stress in construction for my MSc, and surveyed around 300 people.

'I also looked at alternative approaches and went on a course with a bunch of civil engineering guys which included things like Tai Chi. They were quite horrified. People in this industry are very hands on and not comfortable with airy fairy things. They relate better to practical solutions.'

The key to beating stress is to make it a central management issue, believes Sue Caccavone, head of safety and risk at Binnie Black & Veatch (BBV). 'It's important that stress is treated as intrinsic to management as a whole, ' she says. 'We have reviews for all staff every 90 days, which are not conducted by line managers, but by someone else in the organisation.'

Getting an overview of how each person is doing and monitoring their levels of stress is one of the functions of these reviews.

As for alternative therapies, Caccavone's personal view is that they can help. One BBV office has even organised monthly shiatsu massages for staff. However, this is not a sign that butch engineers are finally converting to touchy feely stress solutions. It is an all-female office.

INFOPLUS HSE Infoline - (08701) 545 500 HSE Books - (01787) 881 165

Key points

Stress affects 5M workers in the UK lBreathing and heart rate are early warning signs of stress

Admitting to feeling stress can be difficult but is important to do

Professionals have differing views on how useful alternative therapies can be

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