People Management: Pushed to breaking point by stress

Indira Das-Gupta looks at the rising levels of absenteeism in the voluntary sector.

The voluntary sector is sometimes stereotyped as something of a soft touch for errant employees, so it is perhaps unsurprising that absenteeism rates are higher than the average for the workforce as a whole.

In fact, research shows that absenteeism is actually on the rise in the voluntary sector. A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development last year found that the average number of annual sick days taken by employees in the sector rose from 8.2 to 10.

This figure remains lower than the average for the public sector, which is 10.7 days. However, it is higher than both the private sector, where the average is 7.8 days, and the national average, which is 9.1 days.

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the institute, says: "There might be a perception that as the sector is less target-driven there are fewer pressures, but more than half of all voluntary sector employers questioned say that stress-related absence has increased.

"Working for an under-resourced organisation can put employees under pressure and those who work with service users can also find themselves in challenging roles."

But Stephan Bevan, director of research at the Work Foundation, questions whether stress is a valid excuse for absence. He explains: "There has been an increase in long-term absence, often due to psychological reasons that many people insist on calling stress. Stress is an umbrella term for all sorts of things and isn't actually a medical condition. No job is more stressful than any other - it's our ability to cope with pressure that makes the difference."

Caroline Biddle, acting HR director of Walsingham (formerly Walsingham Care Homes) disagrees: "The word 'stress' might have been brought into disrepute through over-use, but it is nevertheless a medical condition and should be treated as such."

If stress contributes to absence, then it would appear that voluntary sector managers are better at handling pressure. They take an average of just three days off sick per year, compared with the national average of five days listed in Agenda Consulting's People Count of 2003. Roger Parry, director of Agenda Consulting, comments: "This shows how hardworking and dedicated managers in the voluntary sector are. Many feel that they simply can't take time off because of their heavy workloads."

While managers might be better at dealing with stress, they are not always as successful in dealing with employees who are absent. Biddle says: "Managers need to realise that this is not just an HR issue and that they must deal with it. We have given our managers training so that they know how to interact with sick employees in a sensitive way.

"Employers have to take responsibility, and take measures to avoid causing stress by not overloading people with extra work."

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