Are you feeling the pressure?

Are you getting more short-tempered, irritable and moody? Have you started binge-drinking or chain-smoking? Are you the editor of a web site or an engineer?

Much has been said and written about the poor image of the engineering profession.

In the US, France, Germany and Japan, engineers are highly respected. But in the UK anyone from a washing machine repairer upwards can add engineer to their job title, damaging the public’s perception of professional engineers.

Discussion of this, though, tends to focus on its impact on the people entering the profession. Little attention is paid to the effect on those already working as engineers. This negative image causes many to feel undervalued by society, and is damaging morale within the profession.

Add to this lower pay expectations than doctors or lawyers, and potentially fewer opportunities to progress up the organisational ladder than, say, accountants, and you end up with a distinct absence of the ‘feelgood factor’ in the workplace.

This probably matters more now than at any time in our recent history. Competitive pressures are acute, as firms are merging, downsizing, getting lean and racing to cut time to market. The perfect conditions, some now argue, for an epidemic of workplace stress in engineering companies.

The CBI estimates that 100 million working days are lost annually through absences caused by mental health problems. This accounts for 53% of all sickness absence taken by UK workers in a year, at a cost to UK industry of £3.7bn. some firms are so worried about losing staff to stress that they have introduced ‘duvet days’, allowing employees to call in ‘sick’ up to two or three times a year when they feel too over-burdened to face going to work.

Part of the problem is that employees in the UK work the longest hours in Europe. A report published by the TUC last year found British employees were working an average of 43.6 hours a week, compared with 39.6 in France, 38.5 in Italy and 40.1 in Germany. This long hours culture is a particular problem in a profession such as engineering, where putting in extra time could bring you the product development breakthrough you were waiting for.

At the same time, work is spilling over into family life, which some believe could be one of the reasons why the UK also has the highest divorce rate in Europe. The Department for Education and Employment is trying to get more people to leave work on time, and improve the so-called ‘work– life’ balance. But it seems highly unlikely that the government will be able to bring about such a massive shift in the culture of most firms.

The unspoken emphasis on working long hours to prove commitment is encouraging many engineers to go self-employed, says Professor Cary Cooper, Bupa professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester’s UMIST. ‘There is no study that says working long hours is more efficient, and I think more and more people will be encouraged to leave large organisations where there is a long hours culture.’

This could bring its own problems. While some see going self-employed as a chance to wrestle back more control over their lives, others will find working alone more stressful than being part of a large organisation.

The UK workplace has undergone a period of dramatic change over the past 20 years. After the 1980s when, under Margaret Thatcher, the public sector was slimmed down dramatically, the private sector itself began to experience a similar process. ‘We started outsourcing, and contracting out work. We have Americanised the UK workforce, probably even more than the Americans have,’ Cooper says.

This move towards greater contracting out and short-term contracts has been embraced by many engineering firms, increasing feelings of job insecurity among workers, and therefore adding to stress levels. At the same time, while too much work is a main cause of stress, too little work or responsibility can also be a problem. Increasing job insecurity can also mean that people can be scared to let others know they do not have enough work to occupy their time.

A recent survey by training and research organisation Roffey Park reveals that job cuts, by increasing the workloads of those left behind, are raising stress levels among managers and reducing their company loyalty.

Caroline Glynn, co-author of the report, believes many managers have reached the limits they can cope with. ‘It’s just a picture of pressures. Motivation is low, morale is low, and people feel they are not being properly rewarded for their efforts.’

Of the managers surveyed, 75% say their companies are making excessive demands on staff by attempting to do more with less. And this pressure can only increase, with both the Engineering Employers’ Federation and the trade unions predicting further job losses in manufacturing this year.

In the long run, manufacturers may be shooting themselves in the foot, says Cooper, as many of the already scarce graduate engineers will either leave the profession or seek jobs abroad. ‘Organisations demand long hours and total commitment, but will dump people when it suits them — it’s called the flexible workforce. This will have to change if firms want to attract and retain engineering graduates.’

The problem is compounded by uncertainties within manufacturing industry, and the rather macho environment of many engineering firms, which can make it difficult for those suffering stress to admit to what is often seen as a weakness. ‘There is now job insecurity from the top floor to the shop floor,’ says Cooper. ‘Businesses have become too lean and too mean for anyone’s good.’

While anecdotal evidence from trade unions and academics suggests stress is a problem among the UK workforce, it is difficult to tackle, says Gary Booton, health and safety manager at the EEF. The organisation is publishing guidance on the issue for engineering employers later this month, but Booton says workplace stress can be difficult to solve in isolation, as pressure at work can often be compounded by problems at home.

Individuals will often respond differently to the same external factors, so there can be no ‘one size fits all’ solution, he adds. Companies need to improve awareness of the issue among staff, and use commonsense management techniques, including good communication, to identify when there are likely to be problems, such as during business reorganisations.

‘Managers need to think about these situations in advance, so that not only have they considered the financial and practical side, but also the personal side, how it will affect staff,’ Booton says.

Some still question whether stress actually exists. Dr Rob Briner, an occupational psychologist at London University’s Birkbeck College, recently said he believes stress has become such a general term in today’s workplace as to be virtually meaningless. Many employers may be sceptical of the seriousness of stress levels in the workplace, but they could leave themselves open to compensation claims if they do not address the issue. Under health and safety laws, mental health injuries are treated in the same way as physical injuries, and stress is becoming more accepted as an illness for which sufferers can attempt to sue their employers for damages. As the compensation culture in the UK grows — helped by ‘no win, no fee’ deals from lawyers — and high-profile cases within the public sector raise people’s awareness of the issue, civil litigation is likely to increase.

The last two years have seen a significant rise in compensation claims for workplace stress, says Mike Noonan, manager of the claims technical unit for employer liability insurer Iron Trades. Employees are becoming more aware of the avenues of redress for stress-related problems, and claims are being pursued more vigorously, he says.

But many companies have not reacted quickly enough to stem this trend by introducing risk assessments similar to those for all other aspects of health and safety in the workplace.

This failure to take stress seriously will eventually hit manufacturers where it hurts — in their cost base, Noonan warns.

Sidebar: Some symptoms to look out for

Are you getting more short-tempered, irritable and moody? Have you started binge-drinking or chain-smoking? Do you feel uneasy among your friends or colleagues? Have you started lying to cover up problems?

All these are the kinds of behaviour linked with the onset of stress. There are physical symptoms too, such as headaches, or a sore neck or shoulders. Stress sufferers also get panic or anxiety attacks — a mix of sweating, trembling, a racing pulse, a dry mouth. And at the extreme end of the scale, sustained stress has been linked with dizziness, blurred vision and skin rashes.

Two sides of the same problem

1. The project engineer: Redundancy fears

‘The biggest problem is not knowing if you are going to be made redundant. I work with people in their fifties, who have only ever worked for this company, and they get very stressed when they’re not told what is going on.

We’re kept in the dark, treated like children, and there are always rumours flying around. Companies don’t tell staff anything because they’re worried people will lose their motivation. When engineers are made redundant, the workload isn’t reduced, it just means people are expected to take on more work.

As a supervisor there have been times when I was told that redundancies were being planned but I have not been allowed to tell anyone. That’s very stressful, because you feel you want to tell people, and in some cases you feel that you could explain it to them in a manner that would make it easier for them to accept.

I’m 62, I want to work until I’m 65 because I enjoy my job, but I’ve got a horrible feeling we’re being moved into positions which will make it easier to unload us.’

2. The design engineer: Lengthening hours

‘Stress in engineering is increasing as a result of time pressures and the need to reduce costs. These conflicts are felt particularly in the engineering community, because of the increasing pressure to reduce design and development times, and to get products to market quicker. And that time pressure can squeeze out some of the more enjoyable and interesting parts of the job in terms of innovation. The pace of change is increasing, and that’s being driven to some extent by IT and the new technology available.

People are tending to work longer hours, which is adding to stress levels. This is potentially more of a problem in engineering than elsewhere, because in engineering and design you can always improve or add to a product if you just make more time. That’s why it’s often said that one of the most important decisions in design engineering is deciding when to stop, because the very nature of the job means you could put in as many hours as you’re prepared to.

The consequences of getting things wrong can also be quite serious — if there is an engineering problem in a development programme and there are fixed dates that have to be moved as a result, you’re suddenly under a lot of pressure to get that fixed quickly.’