Stress is not only tragic for the individuals concerned, since it harms their health and wellbeing (see my last blog post). It also has a high cost for companies because it undermines the quality of work and lowers the productivity of affected employees, as well as impacting on other team members. The consequences are grave: According to the 2018 Job Stress Index published by Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, stress cost businesses in Switzerland an estimated CHF 6.5 billion – the highest figure since the organization began measuring the financial fallout of stress in 2014.
A good quarter of the members of Switzerland’s workforce say that the demands placed on them exceed their capabilities – in other words, they are suffering from stress. In fact, almost 30% say they feel emotionally exhausted. In the EU, work-related stress is the second most common occupational health problem. And more than one quarter of absences lasting two weeks or more due to work-related illness are triggered by work-related stress, according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in its 2017 report. In Germany, the number of cases of illness due to burnout more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2017. And the number of sick days taken due to burnout increased even more.
It is important to note in this context that on average, mental illness leads to one month’s absence from work (30.4 calendar days). That is twice as long as the average period of absence and the second highest figure after cancer. According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, the economic harm caused by stress at work in Europe and North America totals over USD 120 billion per year. In Switzerland alone, the cost to companies is estimated at CHF 6.5 billion, according to the Job Stress Index regularly compiled by Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz (latest figures from 2018).
The pre-burnout phase is even more expensive
These are numbers that should make us stop and think. However, what is even more expensive than the increasing number of burnout cases is the fact that many employees are no longer fully productive due to stress. Long before they suffer a breakdown, affected employees are up to 40% less productive than their healthy colleagues. So how exactly does stress affect employee productivity?
- Employees suffering from stress can no longer concentrate and become forgetful, increasing the risk of errors and accidents.
- Their ability to think strategically decreases, as do their creativity and spontaneity.
- Stressed employees find it difficult to reach decisions.
- The demotivation associated with stress has a negative effect on the quantity and quality of work performed.
- Over time, absenteeism increases.
- As affected employees become more withdrawn or increasingly irritable, this has a negative effect on the atmosphere in the workplace.
- In addition, colleagues have to take over more and more tasks from those affected, which increases their own stress level and reduces their loyalty to the company.
- All these points lead to higher staff turnover in the medium term, with the departure of stressed employees and their fellow team members, potentially also harming the company’s image.
Young people are more severely affected
There is one development that strikes me in particular: In my coaching practice, I have noticed that more and more younger people are suffering from severe symptoms of stress. For around two years now, I have been coaching several people aged between 22 and 26 (in their first job after completing an apprenticeship or studies) to help them deal with stress. In my experience, this trend is due, among other things, to the strong extent to which people compare themselves on social media and their dependence on digital devices. I also hear from companies that stress is often a big issue even among apprentices – for the same reasons.
These everyday experiences are confirmed by the Job Stress Index produced by Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, which shows that the greatest productivity losses due to stress occur among 16 to 24-year-olds. It also reveals that younger workers are more likely than their older colleagues to feel that the demands placed on them exceed their capabilities. Assuming that this situation will not improve for members of this age group unless action is taken, it is to be expected that companies will suffer even higher stress-related productivity losses in the future.
Stress prevention is worthwhile
My practical experience has shown that many companies are becoming more conscious of the benefits of addressing the problem of stress – both for them and their employees. Unfortunately, however, there are still plenty of businesses that fail to do so. This approach is summed up succinctly but correctly in a burnout discussion on www.die-ratgeber.info (German only), which states: “Companies usually devote more time to maintaining machines than they do to employee maintenance.”
It is therefore high time to invest in stress prevention. These efforts are worthwhile, not only for the individual employee but also for the company. Studies show that according to conservative estimates, stress prevention measures generate a return on investment of 1:3 to 1:5.
The legal aspect of this discussion should not be forgotten either: Companies have a duty of care towards their employees, and that includes the issue of stress. You can find out more about this topic in an interview I conducted with the CEO of SIZ Care: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/2018/12/04/liability issues will increasingly arise on the subject of stress/.
© Claudia Kraaz
 A Swiss foundation that promotes health and wellbeing and is supported by the Swiss cantons and insurers