Stress: the new workplace epidemic

Stress: the new workplace epidemic



Five years of rolling redundancy and change programs have taken their toll on many employees and increasing numbers are struggling with anxiety and depression. There are few families untouched by the hardship of job loss and those workers who have kept their jobs often find themselves mired in “farewell fatigue”, barely able to rouse themselves to think of something original to add to the card for yet another departing colleague. Mental health speaker and author Graeme Cowan, a former management consultant, says business leaders are neglecting to consider the impact of their corporate restructures on their workforces. “Uncertainty has a huge impact,” he says, noting that one of the major banks he works with announced a restructure and it took six months for people to discover whether they still had a job. “I have never seen stress levels higher amongst Australian ­employees.”R U OK?

He says communication about such restructures is often made to appease shareholders rather than to inform and persuade employees.

Despite their ubiquity, change programs have a notoriously low level of success. More than 70 per cent fail to achieve their objectives because not enough attention has been paid to employee health and wellbeing, according to management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

When things go badly, people fall apart, quit their jobs, rebel or retreat into passive resistance.

Cowan is a co-founder of the R U OK? Day workplace campaign and says 34 per cent of lost productivity is caused by depression and stress disorders.

Cowan, who wrote the book Back From The Brink about his five-year ­battle with depression, is coaching 30 people who are trying to adjust to change. “Discretionary effort is just going out the door,” he says.

“Now, there is a feeling of resentment and of hard work that hasn’t been appreciated.

“There’s a basic feeling that it hasn’t been fair. Many feel they have little control over what they are asked to do, and the uncertainty is very distracting. The constant pressure for organisations to do ‘more with less’ means that there have never been higher levels of change and uncertainty in the workplace.”


Cowan says stress rises to harmful levels, creating an “epidemic”, which costs the Australian economy at least $11.6 billion per year (when combined with depression) in lost productivity, according to Medibank Private research.

Anxiety is expensive. The average mental stress claim of the federal government workplace compensation agency, Comcare, is $250,000.

With 12 per cent of employees reporting “extreme” levels of stress, mental stress claims are overloading the workers’ compensation systems of each state, totalling 33 per cent of payouts nationwide. Of those, 33 per cent relate to work pressure and 22 per cent to harassment or workplace bullying.

If these figures seem excessive, Cowan warns they are just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2010, 70 per cent of employees who reported work-related stress had not applied for worker’s compensation.


Poor communication is one of the major reasons that change efforts fail. It can be difficult to convince people that job cuts are the right strategy, particularly in the banking industry, which is raking in billion-dollar profits.

“There is a big disconnect. The employees just don’t get it,” Cowan says.

“In general, organisations have done a very poor job explaining why [the pain] is necessary.”

Cowan says business leaders need to have a consistent message. If they don’t, they may face the ridicule experienced by Qantas Airways chief executive Alan Joyce in 2011 when he accepted a $2 ­million bonus while arguing, during a prolonged dispute, that the airline could not afford to bow to workers’ demands for a payrise.

“Of the [change effort] failures, 33 per cent is because manager behaviour does not support the purpose of the change,” Cowan says.

“I’ve seen it done really well, on a smaller basis, where a really good boss who senses nervousness in his team, commits to having a teleconference every two weeks where they can ask anything they want,” says Cowan.

“Twenty-five per cent of the time, he says he doesn’t have the answer, but he has brought the stress level of the team right down.”

Cowan says constant change is the new normal in business.

“I think, where there was a start and end, theoretically, it now it seems to be business as usual”.

While about 20 per cent of people deal well with change, another 20 per cent can’t cope at all, and the remaining 60 per cent can be influenced positively or negatively by the behaviour of their supervisors.

The payoffs for having a happy ­workforce are substantial. Cowan says employees with a positive mood are 31 per cent more productive, sell 37 per cent more, and are 300 per cent more creative.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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