The rise of work related stress and its impact on the employment market

May 6, 2022

Chris Lipscomb BA, MSc(Hons), FCIPD, COO Blue Pencil

A year ago, research published by Selin Kudret (Forbes May 4,2021), an Assistant Professor at Kingston Business School, made the headlines globally. Her study had suggested that up to 94% of all employees were showing some signs of stress. This alarming statistic had a direct causal link to Covid. Whilst everyone recognised the negative impact of Covid on mental and physical wellbeing, it had been thought at the time that some of the negative effects of Covid would be offset by the prevalence of home working and greater flexibility in the workplace. In fact, the opposite appeared to be true with sizeable increases in levels of underlying depression and anxiety that were fuelling the broader rise in overall stress levels.

Fast forward a year and employees are now being encouraged to head back into their physical workplace albeit with some incentivisation around flexibility. However, little has changed since Selin Kudret published her study. The American Psychological Association in its “Trends 2022” paper published in January of this year observed:

“Burn out and stress are at all time highs across professions….as the world heads into the 3rd year of the pandemic, these stressors have become persistent and indefinite”.

One manifestation of this is the enthusiasm with which employees are leaving the workforce. Many employees, particularly in their 50s, are opting to leave their jobs for early retirement and what they see as a more relaxed life. Businesses everywhere are now struggling to repopulate their workplaces and are paying higher salaries to attract candidates to roles with the corresponding promise that they will be able to enjoy more of a work life balance and not have to work such long hours. In short, the workforce has gone into retreat and employers are systematically trying to encourage them back to the frontline with the promise of more balanced working lives.

The problem is that the demands of customers and clients have not diminished, nor have they become any easier to deal with post pandemic. In truth, while some of us may be able to enjoy our work, work can still invariably be hard and require resilience and fortitude to get through. Our supplies of these qualities have been sapped by Covid leading many to look for a work nirvana of high salaries with minimal input that does not exist.

If Covid was not enough, we now face the very real threat of a world war which could turn nuclear which no one had realistically foreseen. For those reeling from having lost loved ones to Covid or having been carers to others, far from now being able to focus on uplifting thoughts around a return to normality, they must now listen on a daily basis to the unimaginable cruelties being inflicted by mankind on itself in the Ukraine. The threat of nuclear war again reinforces our own tenuous hold on this earth as was highlighted by the global pandemic.

Research conducted by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development earlier this year echoes much of what has been published elsewhere. Its study suggests that 67% of employees are now experiencing moderate to high levels of stress.

As a senior HR practitioner myself too, my concern is that we now seem to be entering an era of “smoke and mirrors” where we are in danger of mis-selling not just jobs but work itself. As employers fall over themselves to entice candidates to their firms with ever bigger remuneration packages, the wheels are now demonstrably beginning to come off the economy (“Britain faces recession and 10pc inflation as interest rates rise”  - Daily Telegraph 5 May 2022).

Whilst there may be some sectors that may be relatively insulated from these recessionary winds, all of us will feel some impact as the economic climate deteriorates.

Employers who have engaged employees on higher salaries with the promise of a more balanced working life will inevitably now need to look more quickly for their payback.

Will employers genuinely be able to maintain the caring, supportive humanistic environment they have committed to, or will employees once again have to accept that work will at times always be challenging and linked to ever changing business cycles that reflect world events? As past performance is often the best predictor of future performance, I fear that the answer will soon become clear as job losses start to kick in again.

Unless you are fortunate enough to be able to remove yourself from the workforce and live comfortably without working anymore, we will somehow need to find the resilience that we lost during the pandemic as we time travel back to the 1970s/80s economically. Sadly, this is one nostalgic journey we could all do without.