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Workplace stress 'up during recession'

Thursday 23 February 2012

Work-related stress has “soared” by 40% and absentee rates by 25% during the recession, according to the Daily Mail. The newspaper today reported that “job security, poor communication and managerial direction could be to blame for the trend”.

This story is based on a study surveying thousands of civil servants in Northern Ireland in 2005, before the recession, and during the recession in 2009. It found that the proportion of employees reporting their job as “very” or “extremely” stressful rose from 18.5% in 2005 to 26% in 2009. The proportion of employees reporting having taken time off work in the previous year due to work-related stress increased from 6% in 2005 to 7.5% in 2009. The number of stress-related sick days participants reported also rose, from 2.01 days on average in 2005 to 2.72 days in 2009.

There are several points to consider when interpreting this study, such as the fact that the survey didn’t include exactly the same set of people both times and that factors other than the recession may have contributed to the changes seen. In addition, the results may not be representative of other jobs or areas of the UK, and can’t tell us anything about the people who may have lost their jobs or who are trying to run their own business in the face of an economic downturn.

Taking appropriate steps to ensure employee wellbeing should be a high priority for all employers, regardless of what the economic climate may be.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Nottingham, the University of Ulster and the Northern Ireland Civil Service; the latter also funded the study. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Occupational Medicine.

The Daily Mail provided a reasonable outline of the findings of this study but didn't discuss its limitations. The newspaper’s story led with the more dramatic way of describing the increases in work-related stress and stress related absence by using the relative increase in levels. It did put the 40% increase in work-related stress in context by giving the actual proportion of people affected during the recession in this study, which was one worker in four.

What kind of research was this?

This was a “time trend” study looking at levels of psychosocial risk factors, work-related stress and stress-related absence at the Northern Ireland Civil Service before and during the recession.

This type of study is useful for describing trends over time. As well as identifying trends, these studies often try to identify why these trends have occurred by looking at what other changes occurred over the time periods surveyed. The people assessed at the different time points are not necessarily the same individuals, and multiple factors can change over time, so it's difficult to pinpoint the causes of any trends identified.

What did the research involve?

The researchers surveyed Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) workers in 2005, before the recession, and again during the recession in 2009. They then looked at whether the levels of psychosocial risk factors, assessed using a self-reported questionnaire, work-related stress and stress-related absence, differed between these two periods.

In 2005, all NICS employees were surveyed, and 17,124 (51%) responded. In 2009, surveys were distributed to employees from a random selection of NICS departments, and 9,913 (40%) responded. Most of the staff surveyed were full-time employees (88% in 2005 and 86% in 2010). The anonymous survey included questions about management standards that assess the psychosocial work environment. The questions addressed the following seven areas:

  • job demands
  • job control
  • managerial support
  • peer support
  • relationships
  • job role
  • changes at work

There were also questions about how stressful the participants found their job, and how many days they had been absent from work due to work-related stress in the past year. Senior staff were interviewed to ensure that no significant organisational changes had occurred in the period that might influence participants’ survey responses.

The researchers then looked at how the factors surveyed had changed over time, and the relationships between them.

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that employees reported higher levels of work-related psychosocial risk factors during the recession than before it. During the recession, participants generally reported a poorer status in six out of the seven areas assessed (job demands, job control, peer support, relationships, job role and changes at work). There was no significant difference in managerial support before compared with during the recession.

The levels of work-related stress and absence attributed to work-related stress were significantly higher during recession than before it. In 2005, 18.5% of people reported that their job was “very” or “extremely” stressful, rising to 26% in 2009. In 2005, 6% of people reported having taken time off work in the last year due to work-related stress, rising to 7.5% in 2009. In 2005, the average period of time absent due to work-related stress in the past year was 2.01 days, rising to 2.72 days in 2009.

Higher levels of psychosocial risk factors were associated with higher levels of work-related stress and stress-related absence.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

Following their study, the researchers concluded that the economic recession was associated with worsening of exposure to psychosocial risk factors at work, and greater work-related stress and stress-related sickness absence. They said that their results indicated “the need for a concerted focus on psychosocial risk management activities during austere economic times” to promote worker health and reduce sickness absence.


This study gives an indication of the levels of work-related psychosocial risk factors, work-related stress and stress-related sickness absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service before and after the onset of the recession. There are several points to note:

  • Although the study was quite large, it was restricted to mainly white-collar employees of the civil service in Northern Ireland. The results may not apply to other workplaces or countries. The study also doesn’t tell us anything about people not in employment or who are self-employed.
  • A large proportion of employees didn’t respond to the surveys (up to 60%) and those who did respond may differ from those who didn't in terms of work-related psychosocial risk factors, work-related stress and stress-related sickness absence. For example, people experiencing these issues might have a greater drive to report them or conversely might be less motivated to take part in the surveys.
  • The study doesn’t necessarily include exactly the same people at the two different time points, so some differences may just be due to including different people. The researchers said, however, that civil servants tend to stay in their posts for long periods of time and therefore they felt it likely that most subjects completed both surveys.
  • Although the recession is a major economic event, other events and factors may have changed between 2005 and 2009 which could have contributed to the changes seen.
  • The Daily Mail’s headline focused on reporting the “40% increase” in work stress, and “25% increase” in stress-related absence. It is important to note that these are the percentage increases relative to levels in 2005. In absolute terms, in 2009 around 26% of respondents reported that work was either very or extremely stressful, compared with 18.5% in 2005 (a difference of 7.5%). In 2009, 7.5% of employees reported having taken time off work in the last year due to work-related stress compared with 6% in 2005.
  • All aspects of the survey were self-reported and may not be representative of other records such as employer-recorded absence.

Due to the nature of the study, it isn’t possible to state precisely to what extent the recession is responsible for the changes seen. However, optimising employee wellbeing should be an important consideration for all employers, regardless of the current economic climate.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website

Links to the headlines

Work-related stress soared in the recession as number of people going off sick rose by a quarter

Daily Mail, 23 February 2012

Links to the science

Houdmont J, Kerr R and Addley K.

Psychosocial factors and economic recession: the Stormont Study

Occupational Medicine (Lond) (2012) 62(2): 98-104