As much as R3 billion a year is being lost to workplace stress in SA, Vicky Eriksson of the human resources effectiveness group, The People Element, says.
Based on a year of research by her company, she said that at a time when employers needed staff to power companies out of the financial crisis with increased productivity, employees were crumbling - disempowered by stress.
She added that workplace stress cost US employers US$200 billion a year in absenteeism, lower productivity, staff turnover, workers' compensation, medical insurance and other stress-related expenses.
According to the UN International Labour Organization, occupational stress was a "global epidemic."
Eriksson noted that workplace stress in SA could be costing the economy at least a R3 billion a year.
"Look at the fact that last July's strike season saw manufacturing production drop 6% year-on-year, while mining output contracted 5.1% compared to July last year, according to Stats SA.
"SA's GDP is US$363.7 billion and manufacturing is 15% and 5% of GDP. That gives an idea of the costs from only two sectors. That doesn't take into account underperforming staff in offices, boardrooms and the shop floor."
She added that unhappy employees were often angry.
"In 2004 the World Health Organisation called workplace violence in South Africa 'alarming', with half of all healthcare workers in government hospitals reporting verbal abuse, and 42.5% witnessing or being attacked at work."
Eriksson pointed to research carried out by Ebben van Zyl of the University of the Orange Free State which indicated that South Africans "experience abnormally high levels of stress" in the workplace compared to the rest of the world.
"Look at the headlines: the rand drops to a new low, the International Monetary Fund slashes the global growth outlook, a mining group fires 5,000. Few people who read those headlines don't experience anxiety - and in the workplace it causes overstressed bosses to push already overworked employees, who although frightened by their job prospects are exhausted, and so become irritable and sabotage. This creates a lose-lose situation for everyone," she said.
She added that her company had conducted its own Employee Optimism Survey last year and would release those figures on 21 February.
Erikkson's colleague Karin Wellman pointed to research from Harvard and the Florham-Madison Campus which showed that, "employees work more today than they did 25 years ago - the equivalent of a 13th month every year. Staff get downsized but the work remains, so workloads are upsized."
The harder bosses pushed their smaller workforces the less able they were to perform well, Wellman said.
"This creates a dilemma for companies because they fear taking on more staff in case the economy gets worse, but less capable employees also pose a threat."
Wellman added that 60% of lost workdays each year could be attributed to stress.
"Around 80% of visits to health care providers are due to stress-related conditions, like sleep problems, depression and irritability, causing higher health care costs. Stressed employees tend to make mistakes and be less creative too.
"And they may take it out on each other as long lists of complaints before the labour court and Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration show."
Wellman said it had been estimated by the US Justice Department that each year more than a million people were the victims of violence at work, or 15% of all violent crime.
"It causes a half million workers to miss 1,751,000 work days per year, and US$55 million in lost wages."
Wellman said that in SA, "we see a militant work force that strike readily."
Both Wellman and Eriksson said there were simple techniques bosses and employees could implement to turn the situation around without resorting to hiring additional staff.
"Times are tough," Eriksson said, "everyone needs to work smarter and with greater empathy."
She added that happy staff created returns for companies.
"People need to stop obsessing on the downturn," Eriksson said, "now is the time to start creating the economic upturn by creating a happier workplace."