Stress is a Threat to the UK Economy That Leaders Can’t Ignore


Most of us experience stress and anxiety from time to time. A level of pressure is normal and can in fact be good for us sometimes, but consistent high pressure isn’t sustainable and, for leaders, it can hamper the running of a successful business. New research from Advanced reveals the intense pressure that owners and decision makers among SMEs are under and, with some 5.7m SMEs in the UK, it poses a real threat to our economy. In fact, stress-related sickness is costing the UK economy over £5 billion a year, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

Advanced’s survey shows that one in five SME leaders feel under constant pressure, and 65% either don’t switch off or really struggle to switch off. Nearly half say they get short tempered when under pressure while 18% isolate themselves or become withdrawn. Other indicators highlighted included not being able to sleep (52%) and getting ill (30%). The findings send a clear message – leaders can’t ignore the impact of stress and, if they continue to spend so much time immersed in the business, they will have little time to think about the development of the business itself.

Everyone copes with pressure in different ways, so find a stress reliever that works for you. From a commitment to taking more time off to scheduling exercise and ‘time outs’ in your day, it’s important to find things – reading, running, family time – that take you away from the pressure.

Take time out – or burn out

It is therefore time for a re-think about the way leaders work and how they are doing things – especially for the owners and senior decision makers in our nation’s SMEs. Simon Swan, Founder & CEO of Manchester-based Hiring Hub, certainly thinks so. He started his business seven years ago and, for the first three, worked 80-plus hours a week. However, in recent years, he’s become more aware of the toll that running a company can take on you, and how to avoid feeling close to burnout.

Simon told me: “I went through a period of never being fully present at home; my head was always in another place. I used to think: it’s okay, I’ll work really hard for five years and then overinvest in those relationships… but I soon realised that it’s never ‘just five years’ and that I needed to make changes to get more life balance. As a result, I now take periods away from my laptop and phone, particularly when I’m with my family. We’ve a lot to learn from other countries whose productivity is far higher than the UK’s, yet they enjoy a better work-life balance.”

Digital era makes down time trickier

The UK has in the past been criticised for its long hours work culture, and the digital era is making it worse too. Mobile devices, while a great asset to everyday working for many sectors, can become a hindrance, not allowing people to focus or ‘switch off’ at the end of the workday. With emails and updates so easily accessible, many managers feel an obligation to continue working outside of traditional work hours. Employees receive on average 121 work emails a day, so it is easy to see how staff can feel overwhelmed. If staff and management alike are answering emails at home as well as at work, this stressor is likely to have significant implications on employee wellbeing.

Workplace stress results in sick leave, high staff turnover and absenteeism, reducing productivity and increasing cost through hiring and sick cover. So how can SME leaders combat today’s ‘always on’ culture? Here are a few simple steps:

How to achieve a work-life balance

  1. Learn to recognise, and take steps to reduce, stress – Causes of work-related stress include long hours, heavy workload, job insecurity and conflicts, leading to reduced work performance, depression, anxiety and sleeping difficulties. It’s therefore important SME leaders recognise work-related stress as a significant health and safety issue.
  2.  Find a stress reliever that works for you – Everyone copes with pressure in different ways, so find a stress reliever that works for you. From a commitment to taking more time off to scheduling exercise and ‘time outs’ in your day, it’s important to find things – reading, running, family time – that take you away from the pressure.
  3. Take a digital detox – Switching off is critical and that means taking a proper break to recharge. Try to finish work on time and, on a regular basis, set aside time at home to turn off your mobile phone and laptop. Lead by example too, and make it clear to employees that their evenings are designed for non-work related activities. This could result in a more energised workforce by morning.
  4. Always put your health first – Although it may not always seem like it, there is more to life than work. Listen to your body, it has ways of telling you when you’re tired, and recognise the signs that mean you need to take time out.
  5. Take advice – don’t suffer alone when you’re under pressure – Many SME leaders are their own worst enemy as they don’t like delegating, which can be damaging to both people and business. Divide work obligations and lean on those closest to you.
  6. Consider positivity as well as productivity – Make sure your employees feel as though they are making a difference. Happy employees have been found to be 12% more productive at work, highlighting the benefits that a positive workforce can bring. 
  7. Focus on what really matters – The Pareto principle (or the 80/20 rule) shows that 80% of our time at work is delivering 20% of results. This, in part, is due to not being able to effectively ignore or reject tasks that are irrelevant to the grand plan of progressing an organisation. Start working smarter, rather than harder.

The bottom line? SME leaders must take responsibility, analyse the way in which they are working and take active steps to reimagine their systems and working practices. Business leaders must begin to think differently if they wish to thrive within this digital era.

BIO: Alex Arundale, Group HR Director

Alex Arundale is the Group HR Director at Advanced, having joined the company in February 2016. She is responsible for leading the company’s talent management and development initiatives, from recruitment through to retention. She has already made an impact, introducing innovative new people focused strategies including attraction strategies which actively avoids unconscious bias and was one of the first to famously ‘throw CVs out the window’ in the recruitment process. Prior to Advanced, Alex has held a number of HR positions, most recently as Director of HR Operations at CDK International and HR Director at APD Dealer Services.

Alex is a Chartered Fellow at the CIPD, the highest level of professional membership. Fellowships recognise a select group of senior HR and L&D professionals who deliver sustained long-term business performance by leading and developing people strategy.