Is London cracking under the pressure?

As more high-profile cases of stress come to light, is it time to re-examine our working lives?

8 December 2013 | By Harry Cockburn

Stress currently affects 16% of British workers and costs employers a staggering £460m a day.

Last year, more than 10.4 million working days were lost to stress, and the condition, affecting five million people annually, has now surpassed back problems to become the most common cause for long-term absence.

But until recently, stress had a reputation as a woolly excuse offered up for underperformance. That is now beginning to change. Tangible financial losses are forcing managers to take notice of the issue, while several high-profile cases have precipitated more open discussions about stress.

In October, an FT interview with Lloyds chief executive Antonio Horta-Osario revealed that in late 2011, he had remained awake for an alarming five straight days and had still gone into the office. Soon afterwards, he was signed off with “extreme fatigue”.  He said he decided to take time off after realising Lloyds was in a “worse shape than I thought when I took the job”.

Earlier in the year, Pierre Wauthier, the chief financial officer of Zurich insurance, was found hanged at his home in Switzerland, and had left a typed note that cited demoralisation by the firm’s chairman at the time.

Then, in November, Sir Hector Sants, former head of the FSA and in charge of the regulator during the banking crisis, permanently stepped down from a senior role at Barclays after already taking leave due to “exhaustion and stress”.

But perhaps the most shocking was the death of Moritz Erhardt, a “dedicated” 21-year-old intern at Merrill Lynch in London, who collapsed in August after working extreme hours. An inquest heard that his family knew he had a history of epilepsy, but the bank had not been informed.  At the time, a colleague said to the Evening Standard:  “He worked very hard and was very focused. We typically work 15 hours a day or more and you would not find a harder worker than him.”

Cases like these highlight issues that may have been continuing in organisations for years unchecked. Indeed, Merrill Lynch declined to comment on the hours Erhardt had been working, but email records show that on a number of occasions he had worked through the night.


On the whole, there is a growing appreciation of how damaging and costly stress can be, both from a corporate perspective, and in terms of risk management. Apart from anything else, employers risk expensive legal costs if they aren’t able to prove they have carried out their duty of care responsibilities.

Neil Shah, director of the Stress Management Society, says: “There are a lot of people who turn up for work where they don’t feel valued, they don’t feel supported, they’re put under heavy demands and heavy pressure. That results in low productivity, low morale, low levels of efficiency, high levels of mistakes, accidents, serious injury or death, absenteeism - which has financial implications for a business - and presenteeism, where people aren’t fit to be at work but they turn up anyway.”

“Now, with the diagnostic tools and metrics that are available, we’re able to easily measure and quantify what stress is costing a company both from a commercial perspective and culturally, and also what the impact on morale and staff turnover is.”

The reduced productivity resulting from presenteeism is now recognized as being more costly to the UK economy than absenteeism. It is estimated to stand at £15.1bn a year, compared to £8.4bn for absenteeism.

Blurred lines

In addition to stress in the workplace, there is growing evidence that people are more stressed in their personal lives too.

Longer work hours are eating into time with family and friends, and social networking and instant messaging mean that employees can find that they’re on call 24/7.

Figures from the Trades Union Congress found that the average British worker now works an additional seven hours and 18 minutes of additional unpaid work every week.

Tony Goodwin, founder and chief executive of international recruitment company Antal International, says: “Social media is unnecessarily increasing the amount of stress we are all subject to.  Not just businesspeople, but students, teenage kids, everybody.

“At work there used to be a demarcation in working environments and your family and social environments. There used to be three distinct areas: work, friends and family. I think the lines have been blurred tremendously by social networking. You have to be very careful that on top of your work pressures it doesn’t invade your whole life.”

Recent improvements

But Sadie Hopson, managing director of business consultancy Euthenia Touch, says that things have begun to improve. “Stress has become a bit less taboo because it’s been spoken about more publicly,” Hopson says. “So people are actually beginning to speak up because of stress and saying they can’t work as well as they could normally.”

Research undertaken by life insurers Canada Life in November found that around 75% of Londoners admitted their productivity is negatively affected by stress, but only a tiny proportion had brought it up at work.

Admitting being stressed as an employee can remain a major hurdle, meaning problems are often left unsolved. Hopson adds: “There’s still that sort of underlying fear that because of insecurity in the job market, [staff] may be jeopardising their position if they do say anything.”

Instead, Hopson and Shah argue that employers need to take a top-down approach to stress management. “There is a direct pounds, shillings and pence value to doing this,” says Shah, “Research by the previous government found that for every £1 you invested in wellbeing and employee engagement activity, you can gain between £3 and £6 back in productivity and efficiency. There are very few things you can invest in as a business that’ll give you that level of return.”

Goodwin says: “I think that like everything that needs to be changed through attitude, it has to start at the top and it has to be led by example. If you have got a stressed executive or senior director making important decisions, they might just make those decisions on the spur of the moment when they’ve had enough - and that’s when you’re in danger.”

Forward thinking

Shah believes that the companies who will continue to prosper are the ones that are willing to adapt and spend money building pleasant environments to work in.

He believes that Google’s campuses have been instrumental in building their global success. “Google have stations where they’ll have healthy organic snacks and fruit and that kind of thing available all the time, they’ve got massage therapists, they’ve got policies and procedures round stress, they’ve got mandatory training programmes around stress and effective support mechanisms. Ultimately they have invested very heavily in creating a culture of well-being.

“They’ve actually recognised the links between productivity, efficiency, engagement and high output and wellbeing. So you have a highly engaged, highly focused workforce. But actually, at Google, they average 12.5 hours a day there. They’re working really hard, but they’re there because they want to be there. This is why they are literally changing the world.”

But the rate of change in attitudes towards stress will be slow. Hopson says she is still shocked when businesses have turned on stressed staff members and said “no, there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s no such thing as stress”. “It’s these ones that are most shocking and most appalling because they’re sort of feeding this culture,” she says.  “It’s very patronising. Businesses need to be engaging with their staff.”

Not everyone in Britain is on course to find themselves working in a health-haven festooned with fruit and masseurs. But as large companies begin to take the lead in showing how to get the most out of staff, everyone else will soon have to keep up, or risk extinction.