Don’t Let Workplace Stress Plunder Productivity

Guest post by Professor Cary L. Cooper

Stress at work is now the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, and many EU countries as well.

However, there is now an even more worrying phenomena, ‘presenteeism’, as people become more frightened of taking time off for illness.

This was first noticed at the start of the recession when the Centre for Mental Health economists estimated that mental health/stress-related absence was costing the UK £8.4 billion, whilst presenteeism was costing £15.1 billion!

Presenteeism has many aspects to it. Jobs are so insecure at the moment that there are people who are legitimately ill but will turn up to work ill, because they fear the consequences if there is a next tranche of redundancies.

There are also employees who are not ill but so dissatisfied with their job that they turn up to work but contribute little added value to their product or service.

And finally, there are those who come early to work and stay late to show ‘face time’, as a means of showing they are ‘committed’ so they can secure their jobs and potentially increase their prospects for promotion.

It has been shown that presenteeism can lead to further ill health and lowered productivity.  Indeed, Robertson Cooper Ltd, the business psychology firm that designs and implements psychometric products, has carried out extensive research on the link between a person’s resilience (where their wellbeing is high and stress low) and their productivity.

In a sample of over 39,000 workers in the private and publics sectors in a range of occupations, it was found that the biggest driver to productivity in the workplace was not pay but the extent to which a person enjoys their job, the extent to which the manager provides clear expectations of objectives – and whether the job interferes with their home and personal life.

The relationship between frequency of positive emotions (e.g happiness, contentment, enthusiasm, excitement, inspiration, etc.) and productivity were strong. For example, an increase in 20% positive emotions will lead to an average increase in productivity of 7.5%; those who come to work ill are on average 5% less productive than non-presentees, etc.

So, stress in one form or another is a bottom-line issue, and managing people by praise rather than fault-finding, giving people more autonomy and control over their jobs, creating a working environment where people can work more flexibly and developing a wellbeing culture can lead not only to less ill-health but higher levels of productivity.

The issue is do we have enough of this kind of manager in our businesses, and if not, we need to consider a different type of assessment centre for recruiting and training them. As Lao Tzu once wrote “a leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say ‘we did it ourselves’”.

Cary L. Cooper, CBE, is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, Director of Robertson Cooper Ltd, and co-author of the recent best-selling book High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing ME and WE (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and also 50 Things You Can Do Today to Manage Stress at Work (Summersdale Publishers, 2013).  You can follow him on Twitter @ProfCaryCooper

As a business strategist with decades of expertise in helping owner managers and family businesses to achieve a work/life balance, contact me on or go to @richardwhatif on Twitter, Richard Bosworth on LinkedIn or

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