The Independent has learned that the Government is so concerned by the cost of stress to industry and to the National Health Service that it has commissioned its first major study into the scale of the problem.
The three-year project into what is officially described as "one of the most serious occupational health challenges facing British employment" will involve 17,000 people.
The decision by the Health and Safety Executive, in conjunction with the Department of Health, to order the study reflects a marked change in attitude from that of the previous government, which had regarded the subject with scepticism.
Dr Peter Graham, director of health for the HSE, said: "We suspect that stress costs British businesses a considerable amount in monetary terms. It also has devastating effects on the personal lives of employees."
The only previous official research into the area, a wider study of work- related illness in 1990, suggested that there were about 182,000 cases of stress or depression caused or made worse by work each year. Figures produced by the CBI showed that sickness absence as a whole cost UK business pounds 12bn last year, the equivalent of pounds 533 for every employee. Other estimates have claimed that stress alone costs pounds 7bn a year.
The Government has asked psychologists and epidemiologists to question a cross-section of people of working age.
The study, which is being led by Professor Andy Smith of the University of Bristol, will seek to determine how widespread and severe occupational stress is.
It will also attempt to distinguish between work-related stress and other forms of stress, caused by domestic disputes and other factors. The third aim of the project will be to assess the effects of stress on the population at large, including the strain on the NHS. Experts said that the initiative was part of an attempt to show Labour's commitment to the social contract without being seen to be soft towards trade unions.
Professor Cary Cooper, an occupational therapist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, said: "This Government is much more responsive to understanding that this is a bottom-line issue. The last government was not."
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