How to prevent stress in the workplace
With today being National Stress Awareness Day, we wanted to take the opportunity to talk about workplace stress, the most common type of stress among UK adults, and what employers can do to reduce and prevent it.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural response to a perceived threat and is described by the Mental Health Foundation as ‘the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.’
Lots of things can cause us to feel stressed, including financial worries, health concerns, family or relationship issues or even just the build-up of everyday pressures and responsibilities. Situations that stress some people may not affect others at all. However, work is one of the biggest stressors for a majority of us, with research indicating that 78% of British workers frequently experience work-related stress.
What are the health effects of workplace stress and why is it important that employers try to reduce it?
We all experience stress from time to time. Some stress can be good for us, helping us to respond to challenges we encounter in our everyday lives and motivating us to get things done. However, when stress is not managed correctly or becomes prolonged, it can start to really affect our wellbeing.
Chronic stress increases our risk of developing physical health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, digestive issues and impaired immune function, as well as mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, which can lead to low mood, poor concentration and difficulty with decision making. Within the workplace, this can result in increased sickness absence, higher levels of presenteeism and reduced productivity and performance, and significantly impact your bottom line. Indeed, a study published by Vitality in 2020 indicated that employee stress, depression and anxiety cost the UK economy £30 billion in 2019, while the Mental Health Foundation reports that people affected by work-related stress lose an average of 24 days of work due to ill health.
But it doesn’t just make good business sense to try and reduce stress in the workplace; it is also a legal requirement. Whether you’re an SME or a large corporation, as an employer the law obliges you to protect employees from stress at work by carrying out a risk assessment and acting on the findings.
What are the causes and signs of stress in the workplace?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlights six key areas that can cause employees to become stressed at work:
Workplace stress can often be compounded by other events happening in an employee’s personal or home life. In such cases, it’s important to identify all the stressors at play and, where these are not work-related, encourage them to seek additional support through either their GP or your EAP service, if you have one.
While we all react differently to stress, some of the common signs that an employee may be stressed include:
- changes in behaviour – appearing twitchy or nervous, experiencing mood swings, or becoming more withdrawn or emotional (for example, more tearful, sensitive or aggressive).
- changes in attendance – taking more time off, arriving late for work or working longer hours.
- changes in performance – making more mistakes, producing poorer quality work, appearing less motivated or failing to meet deadlines.
Signs of stress within a team may include more conflicts or disagreements among team members, higher staff turnover, reduced productivity and increased levels of sickness absence.
How can employers reduce workplace stress?
There are a number of ways employers can proactively reduce stress in the workplace:
Understanding the causes and being able to recognise the symptoms of stress is key. Educating your employees on the signs to look out for, providing them with practical techniques they can use to manage their stress more effectively and ensuring they know who they can speak to if they need further support means they’ll be more likely to take active steps to address any issues at an earlier stage, before they escalate and start impacting on their health.
Equip your leaders
Stress awareness training is even more important for your managers, who must be able to recognise when their employees are stressed and act quickly to address the cause (if work-related) and provide appropriate support or signposting. Make sure you have clear strategies in place for how to build resilience and prevent and manage stress within your teams (for example through the use of both individual and team stress action plans). It is also vital to equip your managers with the right knowledge, language and tools (like these helpful Talking Toolkits from the HSE) so that they can feel confident starting difficult conversations with colleagues about stress and mental health and speaking with them about the support available within and outside your organisation.
Any interventions you introduce to reduce stress within your workplace will be more effective if you know where you’re starting from. Alongside completing your stress risk assessment, you may therefore also want to consider conducting an employee survey or establish a staff forum. This will help you gauge the current levels of stress across your workforce, identify the key triggers and gather feedback from your teams on what changes they think would be most helpful in addressing the main issues. As well as allowing you to develop a more targeted strategy, involving them in your decision making will ensure you’ll have greater employee buy-in.
Maintain regular, open communication
Creating an open culture where people feel comfortable to talk about their stress and mental health can really help to reduce stress within your business.
Regular one-to-one and team meetings allow managers to set clear objectives and expectations, ensuring everyone understands their role in helping to achieve your collective goal. They also give employees the opportunity to receive regular feedback on how they are doing and raise any concerns or issues they may have.
Lead by example
It is important that your managers and senior leaders lead by example in fostering a positive wellbeing culture that prioritises work life balance. Encourage your employees to take regular breaks and not to work outside their hours; provide them with ample opportunities during work to make use of wellbeing resources such as yoga/meditation classes and attend any stress workshops or webinars organised by your company; and be open with them about your own experiences of dealing with stress and the strategies you find helpful for protecting your mental health.
In showing your commitment to putting your employees’ health first, you give them permission to do the same, meaning they will feel more confident in asking for support when they need it.
Create a more stress-free work environment
Physical stressors including high noise levels, lack of privacy, poor lighting, ventilation and temperature control, and inadequate breakout or sanitary facilities can all converge to create a stressful work environment. Depending on the industry you work in and the type of work your employees do, you may not be able to eliminate all of these issues. However, even taking small steps to address them (for example by investing in better air conditioning or providing quiet rooms away from the main open-plan office space where employees can go when they need to focus on important tasks) could really help to create a calmer, more relaxed workplace.
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