One in five of us suffers measurable stress at work, says Liz Bestic, and employers are finally waking up to this...
Stressed? If you're an employee, you probably are. And if you're an employer, you definitely should be. A court ruling earlier this month awarded a council housing officer, Beverley Lancaster, pounds 67,000 for workplace stress. Now Unison, the public sector union which represented her, has other cases in the pipeline. Statistics from Bristol University show that at least one in five of us now suffers from measurable stress at work, caused by long hours and lack of support.

New legislation places a "duty of care" on companies to protect their workers from health and safety hazards, and that includes stress. Growing numbers of well-established companies have now adopted a holistic approach to their employees' wellbeing. At Unipart International, an automotive parts and accessories company based in Cowley, Oxford, there is a "health and wellbeing centre" where employees can benefit from a range of alternative therapies including reflexology and aromatherapy. Absenteeism is low.

Barry Conway, 41, an Internet training and development manager, does not seem the type to waft about on an aromatherapy cloud. But thanks to his twice-weekly sessions, he now no longer gets the headaches that used to trouble him. "I discovered aromatherapy two years ago and I'm evangelical about it now," he says.

Barry now keeps a range of oils in his desk drawer and decides on which ones to burn for maximum results. "Basil and lemon are the best ones to help stimulate concentration," he says with authority.

Stress costs British industry pounds 20bn a year, so it is in a company's financial interests to ensure that its workers are stress-free. At British Petroleum's offshore oil rigs, workers get massage treatments as part of a company drive to de-stress the workforce. Sue McGovern is an on-site masseuse. She visits the rigs once a month to treat the workers for bad backs, sleeplessness and general stress. "An oil rig is one of the most stressful environments in which to work. The guys all have the shadow of Piper Alpha hanging over them, regular alarm drills when they have to abandon ship and a total lack of private space. Often they sleep three to a room and there is nowhere to escape, go for a walk or just be alone," she says.

"Sixteen-hour shifts mean many of them work indoors with no natural light, and the ones that do work outside have to put up with the wind and rain and freezing conditions."

Sue's treatments are so popular that she is booked up months ahead. "A lot of these guys are really stressed out, but the feedback I get is very positive. Their sleep improves and their stress levels are down," she says. "There's no doubt it boosts people's morale to know that the company cares about them and values them."

St Luke's advertising agency in central London has adopted an imaginative approach to keeping staff happy. Not only has it done away with the hierarchy of boss and worker, it also had a "chill-out" room years before any other business did. "The irony is that we no longer need the room because we have so many other things going on here, from on-site massage to yoga," says the business manager, Juliet Soskice. "Staff can either have a therapy at the Hale Clinic or six weeks' free membership of a local gym.

"St Luke's is a holistic environment as well as a workspace. The emotional wellbeing and physical health of staff is as important as how they perform in their job. It's a very simple equation; happier people equals better productivity."

"That's all very well," sniffs Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology, "but if you have an autocratic management style or a culture of long working hours, no amount of aromatherapy is going to do any good.

"It is up to the workforce and the employer together to recognise that overloading people and damaging their private lives is not the best way to manage human beings.

"Employers are too inflexible and need to wake up to the fact that in two out of every three families in the UK, both partners are working. That requires not longer hours but flexibility to allow them to work partly from home and partly from a central office," he says.

"The culture of longer working hours and insecurity has made work very stressful. New technology was supposed to be our support system, but all it has done is speed up the pacek and overload us with intolerable amounts of information."