Stress is a major cause of sickness absence in the workplace and costs over £5 billion a year in Britain.
Unsurprisingly In 2020/21 the rate was higher than the 2018/19 pre-coronavirus levels. Of the 822,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2020/21 more than half said that this was caused or made worse by the pandemic.
A Doctor once said to me ‘Stress causes depression, which is horrible and expensive. And depressed people are depressing! If I was a businessman, I’d want to understand the causes of stress, so that I could keep it out of my business’. Wise words, and yet workplace stress is responsible for more than ten million lost working days a year in the UK. Doctors deal with the effects of stress, depression and anxiety, and business carries the cost in terms of lost productivity.
Of course, in addition to complying with the law, eliminating major causes of stress can benefit your business through:
- Higher productivity
- Increased staff commitment
- Increased staff retention rates
- Higher customer satisfaction
- And an enhanced corporate image and reputation
So, here are our top tips to help you deal with both the symptoms and the causes of stress:
- Recognise the signs of stress
Sometimes the signs are obvious: patterns of absence, sickness or attendance, or
a drop in performance of an individual or team. Sometimes they’re not so easy to spot: normally outgoing people become withdrawn and quietly overwhelmed by workload, even tempered individuals become moody for no obvious reason. Get
to know your staff and recognise the symptoms. Use existing mechanisms such as appraisals and regular monthly reviews.
- Conduct a Stress Audit
In reality, managers are often part of the problem, as they control the resources, lay the foundations for culture, and manage workload. Consequently, people often don’t feel comfortable speaking out publicly. An anonymous stress audit, perhaps as part of a wider staff survey dealing with issues such as morale, motivation, and management support, can generate much useful information.
All organisations are required to assess and manage the causes of ill health at work, including work related stress. An audit will test against the HSE’s standards for
managing stress. These management standards cover areas of work design that, if not managed well, are associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity, and increased sickness absence. In other words, the causes of stress at work.
- Demands – such as workload, work patterns and environment
- Control – how much say individuals have in the way they do their jobs
- Support – such as the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
- Relationships – such as promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
- Role – such as whether people understand their role within the organisation
- Change – such as how change is managed and communicated
With the resulting data, you will be able to identify and address real staff concerns. We can arrange a stress audit, call us for a chat.
- Deal with the causes of stress
Before the pandemic the main cause of work-related stress, depression and anxiety was workload – tight deadlines, too much pressure or responsibility. Other factors identified were a lack of managerial support, organisational changes at work, violence and role uncertainty (Labour Force Survey).
The pandemic has made many of these issues much worse. The isolation of remote working has been challenging for many and makes it much more difficult for managers to spot the signs when someone is struggling.
If the root causes of stress are ignored, issues escalate, costing the business in lost productivity, staff turnover and even litigation. The most common causes of stress I see are:
- Under resourcing
- Lack of support (from management and colleagues)
- Lack of positive feedback
- Poor communication
- Senior managers as poor role models
- Inconsistency in management approach
So, review working practices, workload, and resources. Most importantly develop your management capability. The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development has partnered with the HSE to produce a set of management competencies to target stress (available at Stress Workbook (hse.gov.uk) ). For each of the competencies it gives comprehensive examples of both positive and negative manager behaviour. Essential reading for managers who care.
All workplaces will cause stress to some degree. High pressure environments like the caring professions, recruitment and banking can be particularly stressful. Equally, individuals have different ‘stress thresholds’. If jobs aren’t challenging or interesting enough this will be reflected in lack of commitment, underperformance, and low satisfaction. The trick for managers is to ensure everyone has the right degree of challenge and support to avoid boredom at one end of the scale and stress at the other.
- Promote Well Being and Good Management Practice
CIPD research shows that happy and engaged employees perform better than others, are more likely to recommend their organisation to others, take less sick leave, and are less likely to leave. It’s hardly rocket science.
I also know senior managers who fear that if you talk about stress, staff are more likely to use stress as an excuse to take time off. This can make it difficult to sell to senior management the benefits of stress management. So why not concentrate on the positive business benefits of a healthy motivated workforce, supported by good management practices. Read more here HSE business solution case studie
Nic Marks, founder of the Centre for Well-Being, at NEF (the UK Think Tank New Economics Foundation) says “By measuring and focusing on well-being at work we can create good jobs – and good jobs not only benefit employees, but also employers.” In another example, Microsoft has opened Living Well centres for staff and a well-being programme which provides an open door to a calm environment, away from the pressures of work as well as mindfulness sessions and wellness coaching.
- Fill any skills gaps – quickly
It is predictable that individuals will be stressed in certain circumstances – presenting or speaking to groups, chairing meetings, making cold sales calls. Help people with the skills and confidence to deal with these situations. Don’t let them suffer until their next appraisal or next year’s training programme.
- Resolve conflict swiftly
Some of the most stressful situations involve interaction with others. The scope for conflict or disagreement is high and the need to be assertive is clear. But not everyone will find this easy. Help people build relationships with colleagues, with suppliers, with customers. Try mentoring, coaching, or training to build skills and confidence.
Implement and communicate a process for resolving conflict between individuals, whether this involves line managers, HR, or external mediators. Manage the behaviour of those who step outside acceptable boundaries, and tackle bullying head on.
- Measure your managers on their ‘people’ skills
The best managers can manage, motivate, and inspire their staff. If they can also coach, mentor, and counsel their staff, then the chances are they will be able to pre-empt stress related problems.
Too often however, managers are focused on deliverables, and supporting staff with ‘the soft stuff’ just doesn’t happen – until there is a problem. So, train them, support them and make this ‘people management’ a requirement of their job against which they are measured.
- Put the spotlight on senior management
If the example set by senior management is not conducive to stress-free working, then the seeds are sown. Directors who work endless hours in the open plan office make it almost impossible for their team to go home at a reasonable time and maintain a healthy work/life balance. They must be positive role models. For example, monthly one-to-ones with staff to review workload and objectives should be sacrosanct to managers. Include this ‘walk the talk’ in appraisal processes and performance management systems.
- Implement a stress management procedure
Most employers by now have procedures for disciplinary and grievance issues, sickness and absence. Not always for stress management.
A robust procedure will enable managers to take appropriate action and to offer the best support. What do you do when someone returns to work following illness – stress related or not? What do you do if you suspect someone is stressed to an unacceptable level? Your managers will need this clarity to take the right actions consistently across the organisation. Inconsistency alone can cause stress.
- Get stress on the agenda
For both the Health and Safety agenda, and senior management meeting agendas. This way stress management should get the profile and the high-level support it needs. The health and well-being of your people is as important as your growth strategy and the bottom line to the long-term success of the organisation.
More information from the HSE is available at hse.gov.uk/stress.
Tackling work-related stress using the Management Standards approach – HSE
Talking Toolkit: Preventing work-related stress (hse.gov.uk)
Steve Read. The Helix Consultancy Ltd. © Copyright The Helix Consultancy Ltd