Positive Psychological Wellbeing for Optimal Performance: The Cost-Effective Approach.

Wellbeing is far more than the absence of illness or negative stress, but with the reports of rising negative stress in the workplace, specific mention of stress is worthy here. The following review of the statistics and research on work-related stress brings to mind, and provides warning of, 'The Boiling Frog Syndrome’ (Please do not try this at home!):

If a frog is put in hot water it will jump out. But if a frog is put in at an agreeable temperature and then the water is slowly warmed, the frog will remain there until it to boils to death.

The various definitions and usage of the term ‘stress’ have confused the contribution that it can make to both the understanding and optimisation of performance. There is a general acknowledgement that certain amounts of stress, or more accurately, physiological and/or psychological arousal, are required for peak performance. However, the physiological and psychological stress response that occurs when perceived demands outweigh perceived resources in a situation of perceived importance, is negative to both performance and health, particularly when the stress response is activated over long periods of time. 

Stress and Sickness Absence 

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS, 2014), in 2013, of the 131 million days reported (and recorded) sickness absence;

  • 31 million were due to musculoskeletal problems (mainly back and neck).
  • 27 million were due to minor illnesses (coughs and colds).
  • 15 million were due to stress, anxiety and depression (not including serious mental health problems such as manic depression / schizophrenia).
  • 52 million were listed as ‘other’ and 6 million as ‘prefer not to state’.

There is potential however, for the actual contribution of stress to sickness absence to be greatly underestimated by these figures. Most obviously, this is due to the role of the physiological consequences of stress, e.g., lowered immunological resistance to minor illness, increased muscular tension contributing to musculoskeletal problems and prolonged stress exposure contributing to chronic infections, depression and conditions such as atherosclerosis. Less apparent, but increasingly recognised however, is the lack of reporting of stress as the cause of sickness absence. For example, research by Mind (2010) reported stress as the reason for one in five workers (19%) to call in sick, yet the vast majority of these (93%), say that they lied to their boss about the real reason for their absence: A clearer understanding of the 44% who answered ‘other’ and ‘prefer not to stated’ would also prove insightful here.

Stress and Presenteeism

The concern also appears to extend to presenteeism, instances where employees attend work when sickness absence should have been taken, and may be of particular concern to senior management and high fee-earning professionals. For example in 2013, the ONS (2014) reported that the sickness absence for individuals in the 35 to 49 and 50- 64 age ranges, were the highest amongst the age categories at 2.0% and 2.8% of work hours respectively. Conversely however, the lowest percentage of hours lost to sickness was for managers, directors and senior officials, i.e., those most likely to be in the higher age categories,  at 1.3%. At a more local level, these figures are supported by the Law Society’s (2014) report of solicitors’ health and wellbeing. Here, despite those aged 41-50 and 50+ experiencing the most ‘severe stress’ at 21% and 24% respectively (an increase of 3% from the previous year for the 50+ age group), these age groups were the least likely to take ‘time off due to stress’.

Such reports highlight the potential of stress-related presenteeism to lead to greater stress-related absenteeism in the future. In both 2013 and 2014, The Labour Force Survey highlighted stress as the most common cause of long-term sickness absence. Further, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2013) reported that organisations who noted a rise in presenteeism throughout that year, were more likely to report an increase in stress-related absence over the same period (52% compared to 38% who did not report an presenteeism increase), and an increase in mental health problems, e.g., anxiety and depression (62% compared to 35%). All of these reports are conducive with our knowledge of prolonged stress-related immunological responses having the most severe impact on health.

The Causes of Stress at Work

 It is useful therefore to know what causes work-related stress.  According to THOR-GP (A General Practitioners’ research network), the main work activities reported by patients as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety are: 

  • 37% - Workload pressures, including scheduling, shift work and other organisational factors,
  • 23% - Interpersonal relationships, including difficulties with superiors and bullying or harassment,
  • 12% - Changes at work, including reduction of resources or staff, and additional responsibilities.


Research statistics infer the potential of negative stress, particularly long-term stress, to increase sickness absence and presenteeism. Research also suggests that lesser levels or short term negative stress reduces optimal performance and productivity, whilst positive ‘stress’ can have the converse effect. Many of the causes of negative work-related stress appear however, to be within a company’s control. Consequently, with appropriate wellbeing consideration and change management, the reduction of costs associated with stress-related absenteeism, presenteeism and reduced performance are also within their control.

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