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Stress timebomb in the workplace as staff hide anxieties to keep their jobs

By Claire Harrison

Workplace stress levels are set to soar across Northern Ireland as the recession bites — but workers will put their health at serious risk by ignoring it for fear of losing their job.

That's the warning from world-renowned stress management expert Professor Cary Cooper, who believes that work-related stress will be “driven underground as employees fear for their job security, creating a ticking health time bomb”.

The American-born psychologist said any rise in stress levels will “ironically” lead to a drop in workplace sickness.

Prof Cooper spoke of the health issues facing stressed staff when he addressed employers at a conference in Belfast organised by Carecall, an organisation which provides employee mental health support.

The conference was held in the Ormeau Baths Gallery and was attended by local business leaders and representatives from local companies.

Prof Cooper said workers in Northern Ireland are at risk from long-term and serious health |issues because of extra pressure from increased working hours in the UK, financial pressures and an unwillingness to ask for flexible working time or seek help for stress.

He warned that anyone regularly working more than 40 hours per week “will get sick”.

“Ironically, during the time of a recession, absenteeism will decrease but presentism, that is being at work but not performing at optimum capacity, will increase and this not only affects the mental health of staff but also the profitability of the company,” Prof Cooper said.

“I would urge managers and human resource managers to take the issue of work-related stress very seriously and implement professional strategies to help head off potential problems.”

Stress and mental health issues currently cost the UK economy over £25.9bn per year and the Northern Ireland economy £3.5bn.

Carecall, a subsidiary of the Northern Ireland Association of Mental Health (NIAMH), provides counselling services and stress management programmes to |numerous Northern Ireland companies.

The organisation used Prof Cooper's visit to Belfast to launch Progres, an online resource to “help business owners and human resource staff to access practical mental health advice to help employees deal with workplace stress”.

Peter McBride, managing director of Carecall, said many companies can feel overwhelmed by mental health issues and “don't tackle it efficiently”.

“The wellbeing of an employee is an employer's responsibility and it is within their interest to have a support system in place,” he said.

“With Northern Ireland having the highest stress levels in the UK and the local economy losing £3.5bn every year through mental health issues in the workplace, there has never been a better time to launch Progres.

“The online resource will provide support and essentially counteract bottom line profitability affected by stress related issues such as absenteeism and demotivation.

The Carecall Progres kit can be accessed on www.progres-ni.org.

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