Half a million people in the UK experience workrelated stress they believe is making them ill. Those working in geotechnics are no exception.
Academics may continue to argue that the use of the word 'stress' in an occupational sense is meaningless, but a convincing body of research suggests that whatever you call it, there is a clear link between poor work organisation and ill health.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has chosen the word 'stress' to describe this experience, and further defines it as 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them' Research commissioned by the HSE indicates that half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill. Up to 5M people feel 'very' or 'extremely' stressed by their work. Workrelated stress costs society upwards of £3.7bn a year in terms of lost productivity.
A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests a large number of employers - across a range of industry sectors, including construction - have noticed an increase in stress-related absence during the past 12 months.
Although minor illnesses such as colds and 'flu remain the most important cause of sickness absence for all UK workers, the report shows that stress is a growing cause, with 52% of employers reporting an increase in the past year.
Stress is the biggest cause of long-term absence for non-manual workers and the fourth biggest cause for manual staff.
According to the CIPD survey, the average level of sickness absence is 9.1 working days per employee (4% of working days), a slight increase from nine days (3.9% of working days) on the previous year.
The much-publicised 'news' that the highest rate of absences occurs in the public sector will come as little surprise to those working in the private sector; yet the average cost of absence to employers across the board now stands at £588 per employee per year, a rise of 3.7% on last year.
An alarming 68% of employers identified workload as the cause of employees' stressrelated absences, while 60% blamed management style/relationships at work. About 45% of those employees questioned attributed absence-inducing stress to organisational change, while 41% blamed pressure to meet targets.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is encouraging to know that more than three-quarters of employers are now taking action against workrelated stress. Almost two-thirds are taking steps to improve the work-life balance for their employees, and more than half are introducing stress audits/risk assessments.
A large part of managing stress is about good people management, says Ben Willmott, author of the CIPD report.'It is about providing employees with well-defined job roles, challenging but realistic targets and the support, training and recognition to help them achieve these targets, ' he says.
Although it is worrying to see stress-related absence on the increase, he adds, it is encouraging that employers are taking action to address it.
Half of employers polled by the CIPD have introduced staff surveys, increased the involvement of occupational health professionals and brought in employee assistance programmes to try to tackle stress.
The HSE is working with a number of 'key stakeholders' in developing an approach aimed at helping organisations tackle work-related stress. This includes management standards to provide organisations with a yardstick to measure their progress and to help them target action where it is most needed.
In the meantime, a growing number of forward-thinking employers in the construction sector have implemented their own strategies.
Atkins provides a number of policies and staff assistance programmes to help prevent stress among its staff, under the broad heading of employee wellbeing.
However, says director of human resources development Brian Fitzgerald: 'Perhaps equally as important is that the company is striving to create an internal workplace climate which recognises that every individual makes a contribution to our success and as individuals they have different motivations and levels of resilience.'
While appreciating there is increasing pressure on performance that is not going to go away, Fitzgerald adds: 'Managers need to adjust for individual differences, seeking to avoid or alleviate potential work-related stress.'
Nevertheless, there are few industry sectors as mentally and physically demanding of staff as below-ground civil engineering and geotechnics. Enormous variations in workload, huge responsibilities, short deadlines and the frequent need to work away from home all take their toll on an individual's wellbeing and home life, not to mention the ongoing battle for better pay and status.
'My gut reaction is that working in geotechnics is stressful, ' says Nick Watson, technical director at Wardell Armstrong.'But while some find it difficult, others thrive on it.'
What makes the job stressful, he adds, is often what makes it interesting too: 'It's never straightforward; the top 10m of the ground is variable, there are always surprises and there's invariably a lot of work all at once. It's a juggling act and pretty much always feast or famine.'
Ironically, Watson moved into this sector - from overseas geological survey work - for the chance to have more of a home life.
'Wardell Armstrong is a reasonably easygoing employer, ' Watson adds.'People here are conscious of the importance of its employees having a good work/life balance.'
Time for a break?
Senior engineers looking forward to a stress-busting fortnight in the sun might be in a minority.
Construction managers, it seems, are in danger of becoming too afraid to put their feet up and go on holiday.
According to the Chartered Management Institute's annual holiday survey, work overload has reduced the number of construction managers prepared to use their full holiday allowance from 66% to 58% over the past year.
The survey found many managers blame work commitments for their growing failure to take a proper break, with most (73%) admitting their professional responsibilities have affected their holidays.
When asked about their relaxation music, managers' most frequent response was 'classical', with Mozart and Beethoven as favourite composers. Runner-up was 'chillout' music, which they defined as anything written or performed by the Beatles, Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac or Coldplay.