Under pressure? A strategy for stress in the workplace

The holistic approach looks after the individual while also dealing with productivity issues in the workplace

Pressure point: stress is the main cause of absence after cancer and back pain. Photograph: Thinkstock

Pressure point: stress is the main cause of absence after cancer and back pain. Photograph: Thinkstock


Sometimes, it just all gets too much. It might be a colleague who has a certain irksome manner that pushes you over the edge. It might be a demanding child needing help with homework when you get back from work. Or, it might be an ageing parent who needs your emotional support.

Many people find it difficult to manage all the different aspects of their work/home life and often don’t know who to turn to for help. Sometimes, the main worry is about the changing nature of work or about your own health. Or, it could be coming to terms with an ageing parent’s diagnosis of dementia or dealing with a conflict in your child’s school.

Deirdre Irvin works with employees of companies of all sizes to help them deal with stressful points in their lives. “It’s a holistic approach to looking after the individual while also dealing with productivity issues in the workplace,” she says.

Confidential counse

lling Many people don’t know that their own human resources department may offer confidential counselling services through the Employee Assistance Programme (see panel). Sometimes, the initial help is given through the company’s own human resources team or via an external consultant such as Irvin who works contractually for


“The problem might first come to light because the employee has a poor work attendance. They might start by missing the odd day and that builds up to a week or runs into an absence of more than three months.

“This triggers a referral to an occupational health consultant,” says Irvin.

The key, according to Irvin, is to offer the employee help.

“It’s not a policing service. If someone is out sick, I would offer them the chance to take an Employee Assistance Programme. Hopefully, that will clear up any problem that’s there and we’d follow up afterwards,” she says.

Chris Gilmore works for Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) Consultants, the largest provider of EAPs based in Ireland.

The company deals with more than 170 companies which range from retailers, charity organisations and accountancy firms to universities and health service providers. Corporate health insurance providers also offer EAPs as part of their employee cover.

According to Gilmore, about 11 million days are lost due to absence every year in Ireland, which costs businesses about €818 per employee.

“Stress is the main cause of absence, followed by acute illnesses such as cancer or back pain,” says Gilmore, who is an occupational psychologist.

According to a survey by the European Agency for Safety and Health At Work, four out of 10 workers think stress isn’t handled well in their organisation. Yet, up to 60 per cent of working hours are lost through absenteeism caused by workplace stress.

According to the Health Service Executive, each case of stress leads to an average of 27.5 working days lost.

Home visits

Sometimes, when an employee has been absent from work for quite a while, Irvin will visit them at home.

“This happens after an illness or injury when the individual needs a return-to-work plan.

“My job is to see if there are any barriers, whether physical [for example, if the person is using a wheelchair] or otherwise. Sometimes, an employee will have to retrain to do a different job than they did before.

“These people need to be nurtured back to full health, and meaningful work is a part of that.”

Historically, the occupational health dimension to workplaces focused on alcohol- or drug- dependency problems that were affecting the employee’s work.

“Companies would often pay for rehabilitative treatment for an employee rather than simply fire the person,” says Irvin.

More recently, occupational health consultants deal with a much wider set of problems.

“It’s everything from tackling financial worries to job insecurities to sick parents or legal issues.

“For instance, I find sometimes that people don’t know how to negotiate the health services to find the best treatment or supports for themselves, their parents or their children,” she adds.

While the employee assistance programme is usually accessed via the human resources department of companies, employees can also self-refer without their supervisor/manager knowing.

“Often companies will have information on their intranet about EAP providers and individuals can take it from there,” says Irvin.

Employee Assistance Programmes: What are they?

Employee Assistance Programmes offer various kinds of help/support or advice to employees.

They have a dual function: to help organisations address productivity issues and to help employees deal with a wide range of issues that may be affecting their performance at work.

As well as getting the employee access to specific advice on financial, legal, property issues or information on parenting, disability, childcare/eldercare, home help services, the programme offers six to eight confidential “solution-focused” counselling sessions to deal with bereavement, depression, change, career, substance abuse, family, stress, relationship issues, anxiety or problem solving.