Stress and burnout prevalent in the workplace
A study suggests that employees of all types in Slovenia are vulnerable to stress and burnout at work. The research into psycho-social risk factors in micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises was carried out by the Koper Science and Research Centre at the University of Primorska. It surveyed 976 employees, conducted interviews and held focus groups on different work-related problems such as stress, burnout, absenteeism, employee turnover and work–life balance.
About the study
In 2007, data from the Slovenian Government Statistical Office (in Slovenian) showed that stress and depression were the second most frequent work-related problems, just behind back pain.
Workplace stress is not an isolated issue of each individual but rather a strategic problem resulting in higher absenteeism and employee turnover rates, along with lower productivity, creativity, innovation, and sense of belonging to the enterprise.
A study, Analysis of psychosocial risk in the workplace in micro, small and medium sized enterprises (in Slovenian, 751 KB PDF), was carried out by the Koper Science and Research Centre, University Primorska, and sponsored by the University Rehabilitation Institute of the Republic of Slovenia.
The study was carried out in the context of the need for an integrated and inter-related analysis of different problem areas. These problems included stress at work, burnout, presenteeism leading to reduced productivity at work, absenteeism, a high employee turnover, and work–life balance issues.
The empirical research was based on a combined quantitative and qualitative methodological approach. A survey was carried out among employees in 400 selected enterprises, all members of the Confederation of New Trade Unions of Slovenia ‘Independence’ (KNSS) and the Employers in Craft and Small Business of Slovenia (OZS).
The survey was undertaken between October 2010 and the end of January 2011. In total, 976 questionnaires were included in the survey.
In December 2010 and January 2011, focus groups were held. Semi-structured interviews with management, professional staff and general workers were also carried out. Three focus groups and interviews included eight members of management, eight professional staff and 10 other employees, which provided a deeper insight into the research topic.
The results of the survey indicate the presence of psychosocial risk factors at the workplace among all employees. These risk factors are there irrespective of an employee’s position – from workers in production lines to the management body – and regardless of the company’s size or line of business.
Although stress has become an accepted part of work, it seems that health and well-being at the workplace are given insufficient attention. The report suggests employees need more information about psychosocial risk factors, in particular about understanding the symptoms of stress and burnout. They also need information about the risks and advice about how to reduce and prevent stress. More information is also needed about the damage that can be caused by workplace stress.
Of the 976 employees who completed the questionnaire, 62% considered their work to be ‘stressful or highly stressful’, while 56% said they were under stress frequently or most of the time.
When they suffered stress-related problems, only 4% of all employees said they turned to professional staff for advice.
Respondents from medium-sized enterprises considered their work to be more stressful than employees from the micro and small enterprises.
The most frequent source of stress at work in micro and small enterprises was found to be ‘undue responsibility’, ‘work overload’ and ‘insecurity about pay’. In medium-sized enterprises, contributing factors were revealed to be ‘a lack of consultation and communication’, ‘lack of recognition of work performance’, and ‘inability to influence/make decisions about work’.
The study revealed a communication gap among employees at various levels. This issue was highlighted by workers and middle management staff in larger enterprises in particular, which frequently resulted in dissatisfaction and stress.
Good interpersonal relations among employees appears to be paramount. Appropriate communication, an employee’s autonomy over their own work and having a part in decision-making are all factors that have a crucial reducing the harm caused by workplace stress.
Special attention has been paid to the analysis of vulnerable groups. The report looked at factors affecting employees with limited-time contracts, junior and senior employees, women, workers on minimum wages, and workers with disabilities.
Older workers said their stress was often caused by work overload, sudden changes in the organisation and health problems. Workers on minimum wage bands were concerned with their material status and poverty risks. Women were more concerned about their work–life balance and flexible working hours.
Reducing the risks
Based on the collected data, the study identifies measures to reduce psychosocial risk factors in the workplace that some enterprises have already implemented. These include:
• annual performance interviews;
• regular evaluation meetings;
• providing employee information;
• employee satisfaction surveys;
• preventive medical examinations;
• short breaks for recreation;
• work rotation systems.
The study identified a communication gap, at various levels, among employees in larger enterprises in particular. This frequently resulted in reports of dissatisfaction and stress.
In addition, the study provided examples of good practice – both in Slovenia and in other countries – which could enhance the development of a culture of prevention and promotion of health and wellness at the workplace.
Stress and burnout are still considered to be taboo subjects in Slovenia. Employees are afraid of the potential formal or informal sanctions which might be used against them if they admitted suffering from stress-related problems.
Both the Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (ZSSS) and the Association of Employers of Slovenia (ZDS) have said the issue of work-related stress and violence and harassment at work are still poorly regulated. In 2013 the two organisations began a project, Modernisation of industrial relations through enhancement of collective agreement reform (111KB PDF, in Slovenian), financed by the Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. It ends in 2014.
Sectoral collective agreements do not in general include provisions about safety and health at work, and this is only regulated by labour legislation.
Koper Science and Research Centre (2011), Analysis of psychosocial risks in the workplace at micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, Republic of Slovenia University Rehabilitation Institute, Ljubljana.
Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia (2007), Work related injuries and occupational diseases, Q2 2007, available at http://www.stat.si/novica_prikazi.aspx?id=1532
Helena Kovačič, University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences