April is Stress Awareness Month and business leaders and managers should be evaluating how to successfully support their workforce with addressing and tackling workplace stress.
Last year the HSE integrated questions relating to work-related stress into their Covid spot checks as part of their routine inspections to ensure organisations were operating safely. The pandemic is thought to have played a role in increasing occurrences of work-related stress, with the HSE’s 2020/21 figures revealing that stress, depression or anxiety account for 50% of all work-related ill health. While it is true that a certain level of pressure can be good for a person’s performance, too much can cause stress which is detrimental to their health and wellbeing - as well as costly to a business in the form of mistakes, loss of productivity and absenteeism.
One of the challenges of spotting stress in your employees is that everyone handles and reacts to stress differently. Whereas indicators such as high absence rates, uncharacteristic behaviours, and lack of concentration or commitment can point to a stressed employee, it is possible for employees to show very few signs at all or only open up when they are at breaking point. On top of that, every individual will have a different level of workplace stress they are able to tolerate. So what can organisations do to address this?
A company’s culture is critical when it comes to being able to acknowledge and successfully manage workplace stress. An open and caring culture will lead to employees feeling more able to talk to HR or their manager when they are stressed. This will also allow them to gain the support they need from their colleagues without fear of losing their job, being ruled out for promotions or losing respect from the rest of the team. A supportive culture cannot be achieved overnight. However, providing access to resources such as online stress awareness training, seminars and stress-busting tools will provide employees with a better understanding of stress and how to manage it, which helps embed positive approaches.
Alex Morris, Director at iHASCO eLearning, says, “Businesses need to have frank and honest conversations with employees about workplace stress, as well as carry out a bigger awareness piece around the issue. This will help encourage employees to speak out when they are suffering with work-related stress and help address the situation early to give better outcomes of resolution for an individual and a business.”
Managing work-related stress
The HSE requires businesses who employ at least five people to have a written work-related stress risk assessment that applies to the whole organisation, including homeworkers. This ensures that employers do not neglect work-related stress risks. Consulting with employees is an expected and important part of the process. It’s highly advisable for any business to review their stress risk assessment, particular in light of the pandemic where employees have experienced significant change.
The HSE sets out six Management Standards to help employers identify possible areas of workplace stress, surrounding demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. A business isn’t legally required to follow this framework but it does ensure that an employer is sufficiently covering their duty to assess the risk of work-related stress.
Stress can result from a variety of areas in the workplace including unrealistic deadlines, lack of training, workplace conflict, too much or too little contact with a line manager, unreasonable workloads or workplace change. Businesses that take a more proactive approach to stress management will help prevent stress from appearing in the first place. It has to be about more than the written policies and procedures. “Employers and employees need to actively work together to prevent, reduce and effectively address stress”, says Morris. “Everyone will experience work-related stress at some point but it’s about whether an employee feels able to speak out and have the confidence to know they will be supported that counts. Open discussions and raising awareness will also help make sure everyone is better equipped to deal with stress.”
Stress should not be considered a ‘normal’ part of a person’s job. It requires business owners and managers to show commitment to addressing workplace stress and to lead by example. A simple email from management encouraging staff to take breaks and stick to their working hours could make a real impact. Speaking directly to employees or sending out anonymous surveys could help managers understand the extent of workplace stress. This will also demonstrate that discussing workplace stress is not only acceptable but necessary to help make sure employees feel able to do their jobs but know they will be met with compassion if they voice their concerns. By making employee wellbeing a priority staff will see that they are valued and will be able to thrive in a more positive and productive environment, where stress is at a minimum.
Download your Mental Health in the Workplace White Paper here