Anxious about Brexit? Leaving EU will lead to psychological stress

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For many Brexit, and the political and economic uncertainty around it, is causing anxiety. We examine the possible impact on the workforce and industry

Since the triggering of Article 50 the media have highlighted every Brexit development – most of which are fairly negative.

Take for example banks considering leaving the City for Frankfurt, Paris or Brussels or Spain's pressure on Gibraltar's status.

This continual drip feed of unsettling news can have a subliminal psychological impact on all of us, particularly among working people, who still feel job insecurity as a result of the recession, and also from the rapidly developing gig economy where more jobs are short term, zero hours contracts and even self employed.

Big events like the recent recession and Brexit profoundly affect our sense of security, with uncertainty reinforced by negative media reports leading to increases in stress and anxiety.

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In 2007 and through the recession I collected data in a longitudinal study on the health and wellbeing on a cohort of 10,000 managers from shopfloor to top-floor in both the private and public sector in the UK, in conjunction with the Chartered Management Institute.

The study found from the start of the recession in 2007 to its height in 2012/3, managers showed higher levels of psychological stress – mood swings, feeling unable to cope, anxiety attacks.

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They also showed a range of physical symptoms including more colds and flus, digestive and respiratory problems. What tends to happen in dramatic events fuelled by uncertainty is that employees tend to try and protect their jobs by working longer and unsocial hours, turning up to work even if they are ill (presenteeism; a term used more and more by HR professionals since the recession), attending meetings they don't need to go to in order to show 'face time' and sending work-related emails at night and over the weekend.

But by engaging in these types of activities workers are actually making themselves even more vulnerable. They are potentially burning themselves out and adversely affecting their performance – and the productivity of their organisations.

While the UK and EU are steeped in political and economic negotiations, many working people will be worried about the impact a Hard Brexit will have on their jobs, living standards, ability to be mobile in Europe and the like.

These worries will accumulate as the negative headlines bombard them over the coming 24 months, as the EU plays 'hard ball' with the UK to bolster their position with the remaining 27 members.

Already in the UK, the leading cause of sickness absence at work is stress, anxiety and depression (representing nearly 40% of all sickness absence). Last year more than 500,000 suffered from stress at work, with an average of 24 lost working days per worker and an annual bill of more than £5billion, together with incapacity benefit for mental ill health around the same figure. My fear is that bill will grow substantially during the next two years or longer, both direct costs and indirectly in terms of significantly lower productivity per worker. As President Roosevelt said of the Great Depression in the 1929: 'True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security.'

You might think this is only a UK problem, but given that the UK is the second biggest net contributor to the EU budget behind Germany, and a net recipient of exports from EU countries, the impact on the EU itself and many of the EU countries that rely on exporting to the UK (for example the German car industry) could easily lead to stress related problems associated with job insecurity and uncertainty among European workers as well.

It is imperative that business leaders understand the potential negative effects of the Brexit process on individual employee's health and wellbeing, as they struggle with the uncertainties and negativity of the coming months.

They ought to reflect on the words of the great social reformer John Ruskin in 1871 when he said of pressures of work in the industrial revolution: 'in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it'.

• Professor Sir Cary L Cooper is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester and co-author of the recently published book The Crisis Book

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