Published on Thursday, October 12, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Workplace Blues Leave Employers In The Red
A dramatic increase in stress levels has led to spiralling anxiety, burnout and depression across the globe, the UN's labour arm warns
by Andrew Osborn in Brussels
The workers of the world are, according to a United Nations report, united in just one thing these days: record levels of stress.

What is more, the report warns, anxiety levels are set to dramatically increase in the coming years as globalisation continues its relentless march, and the economic costs for business will be massive.

In a landmark survey examining stress in the workplace in five countries, the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that levels of anxiety, burnout and depression are spiralling out of control.

The problem is costing employers billions of pounds in sick leave and lost working time, and often leaves frayed employees grappling with a series of complex mental disorders for years afterwards.

The study focused on the problems of stress and mental illness at work in the UK, the United States, Germany, Finland and Poland.

It found that despair at work is a growing problem in all five countries, with as many as one in 10 workers affected.

Depression in the workplace is the second most disabling illness for workers after heart disease, the report warns, and is set to grow dramatically as new technologies multiply.

Downsizing, layoffs, mergers, short-term contracts and higher productivity demands have all exacted their toll in the last 10 years, leaving many workers frazzled and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"Workers worldwide confront, as never before, an array of new organisational structures and processes which can affect their mental health," the report says.

In the UK as many as three in 10 employees experience mental health problems and at any given time one in 20 Britons is fighting off "major depression".

"The self-reported occurrence of anxiety and depression [in the UK] ranges from 15 to 30% of the working population," the report says.

The reasons for this are twofold: people find it hard to adapt to new technology and cannot keep up with constantly changing working practices.

In the UK, these higher stress levels are estimated to be responsible for the loss of 80m working days a year. In financial terms, that leaves the country seriously out of pocket - to the tune of £5.3bn annually, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

The NHS is also bearing the brunt of the wave of work-related anxiety. Some 14% of inpatient costs and almost a quarter of its annual bill for drugs and medication are swallowed up by stressed out, sometimes mentally ill, office workers.

"These trends represent a wake-up call for business," the ILO says. "For employers, the costs are felt in terms of low productivity, reduced profits, high rates of staff turnover and increased costs of recruiting and training replacement staff."

In the US the picture is equally bleak. One in 10 workers suffers from clinical depression and the problem is getting worse. Some 200m working days are lost every year because of stress, and the cost of treating anxiety-ridden workers tops £30bn annually. Some 40% of workers complain that their job is very, or extremely, stressful.

Unrealistic deadlines, poor management and inadequate childcare arrangements are to blame, the ILO says.

As much as 4% of the 15-country European Union's gross national product is ploughed into treating the stressed and mentally ill.

But it is in Finland that work-related stress seems to have reached epidemic proportions. More than half of the workforce in this nordic country is blighted with some kind of stress-related symptom, and 7% of Finnish workers are "severely burnt out".

Worn out, increasingly cynical and suffering from insomnia, the average Finnish worker's performance is badly impaired and the country's suicide rates are high.

In Germany, 7% of workers opt for early retirement because they are stressed and depressed, the report says, and Poland's workforce is increasingly prone to anxiety as joblessness soars in the wake of the collapse of communism.

People who have time off because of nervous breakdowns are often stigmatised, and find it hard to pick up where they left off.

The World Federation for Mental Health this week warned that by 2020, stress and mental disorders will overtake road accidents, Aids and violence as the primary cause of lost working time.

Taking its toll

UK: Three in 10 workers have mental health problems and one in 20 suffers from major depression. Stress accounts for 14% of sickness leave and 80m lost working days each year. The annual cost of productivity lost due to stress is £5.3bn

US: One in 10 workers suffers from clinical depression, with 200m lost working days a year and a bill for treatment and lost earnings/working time of £30bn

Finland: More than half of the workforce is blighted with stress-related symptoms, 7% are "severely burnt out" and the country suffers from a high suicide rate

Germany: Almost 7% of early retirements are caused by depression. The number of working days lost annually is 2.3m and the annual cost of productivity loss due to stress-related absenteeism is £1.5bn

Poland: Anxiety caused by soaring joblessness increased by 50% last year, while post-communist economic restructuring saw the country's suicide rate rise from 13.9 to 14.9 per 100,000 population

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000