Today is National Stress Awareness Day. We take a look at the business case for effectively managing and supporting stress in the workplace.

We all experience stress on a daily basis; it is a part and parcel of normal life. So, indeed, is the occasional grumble about it.   To a certain extent, stress is good for us. It keeps us alert, on our toes, responsive to danger and ready to react. Some would argue it makes us feel ‘alive’. When life strikes a healthy balance, periods of stress are interspersed with episodes of relaxation, allowing us time to ‘coast’, recharge our batteries, and gear up for the next challenge. But, when this steady ebb and flow turns into a tidal wave of non-stop stress, the physiological and psychological impact can be overwhelming. And, whatever the cause, it can become an uphill struggle to function effectively in the workplace as a result.

But as every employer knows, stress is such a thorny issue. For a start, the term gets banded around so liberally that it has become rather clichéd. Secondly, everyone’s threshold is different. Stress isn’t an “all or nothing” thing. It sits on a continuum, on which the tipping point between healthy stress and unhealthy stress will vary from one person to the next. And thirdly, we all respond in different ways to experiencing excessive stress; ways which can easily be mistaken for symptoms of other conditions. In short, stress is an unpredictable beast, and a veritable minefield for employers to negotiate.

Be that as it may, there is no getting away from the scale of the problem. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 40 million people in the European Union report that they have suffered from stress. Stress is the single biggest cause of sickness in the UK, and accounts for 9.9 million days lost per year in the British workplace (43% of all working days) (Labour Force Survey, 2014/15). The statistics paint a costly picture, and in their own right they present a strong business case for employers to take positive steps to adopt a supportive stance towards stress in the workplace.

It isn’t all about the £ signs though. There are both legal and moral arguments for sitting up and taking notice of stress in the workplace. Stress may not be a disease in its own right, but left unchecked it can certainly lead to mental or physical ill health. Ignoring the signs could not only exacerbate the sickness absence problem, but in more extreme circumstances it could have devastating personal consequences for the employee. And when stress related conditions fall within the statutory definition of disability, employers are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the employee concerned. In the modern era, the lines between home and work life have become increasingly blurred. There are precious few jobs left which allow employees to properly ‘switch off’, even outside official working hours; technology has seen to that. With more pressure than ever on the UK workforce to deliver, perform and respond 24/7, it is easy to see why ‘employee wellbeing’ is more than just a bandwagon and a trend. It is an essential part of any business culture, and responsibility rests in equal measure on the employer and the employee.

On, then, to some practical advice; how to spot the signs? The basis for this lies heavily in knowing your employees in the first place. A good day for one person might look very much the same as a bad day for someone else, so it is important to have a benchmark for each individual. Assuming, though, that you’ve got a good handle on your people (their typical demeanour, performance, behaviour, mood, health and so forth), you’ll need to look out for both physiological and psychological signs. Stress takes a physical toll on people in a variety of ways, from loss of appetite and low energy, headaches and sweats, through to increased vulnerability to colds and viruses, and, in more extreme cases, upset stomach, chest pain, rapid heartbeat or increased blood pressure. Equally there are tell tale signs on the psychological front too; increased agitation, lack of focus, low self esteem, a sense of isolation, anxiety, worry and depression can all feature to a greater or lesser extent. The challenge for the responsible employer is recognising these largely hidden symptoms. The clue rests in exhibited behaviours, and in identifying those more ‘out of character’ departures from the norm. It might be something relatively minor, such as forgetfulness or fidgeting. It could be signs of chronic fatigue in an otherwise energetic individual. Perhaps your typically organised and self-starting team member has become uncharacteristically apathetic or disorganised? Or it could be as major as a total withdrawal from responsibility and social interaction in the workplace.

Maybe it’s nothing. Everyone is entitled to an off day, even an off week. But you won’t know how your employees are feeling if you don’t ask them. Starting the conversation isn’t always easy, but whether it is making critical changes to alleviate work related stress, or lending the right kind of understanding and support for personal issues, there is far more to be gained than lost in opening the lines of communication, and the earlier on, the better.

According to ACAS, work related stress can be categorised and controlled in six ways:

  • Demands – overload resulting from volume or content of work (employers should look carefully at job design, training needs, and organisational planning, and keep an open mind towards flexible working).
  • Control – stress caused by limited control over how and when work is done (involve employees as much as possible in decision making, and avoid ‘micro managing’ employees).
  • Support – anxiety resulting from lack of support from managers (create an open culture, offer plenty of opportunity for one to one contact, and train your managers to handle any issues sensitively).
  • Relationships – from an inability to bond with others, to the extremes of bullying and harassment (train managers to recognise the signs, communicate and espouse your policies and values on inclusion, and ensure you have a robust and well communicated set of policies on grievances, bullying and harassment).
  • Role – lack of clarity regarding role and expectations (ensure job descriptions are up to date, fit for purpose and clear. Set SMART targets and objectives, and ensure they are discussed and reviewed regularly)
  • Change – uncertainty or insecurity brought on by poorly managed change (consult and inform colleagues as openly as possible ahead of any significant changes)

Employers have a duty of care, under health and safety law, to assess work related stress and take measures to control the risks.   Of course, the triggers for stress may not come from the workplace itself. According to the CIPD, workload is the most common cause of stress, but there are other common factors, such as non-work relationships/family, financial anxieties, management style and relationships at work. The ability to compartmentalise one’s life doesn’t come easily to everyone, though, and even the most stoic amongst us can be found guilty of bringing our personal troubles to work occasionally. So, no matter the cause or the trigger, if stress is presenting itself in the workplace, it is in everyone’s interests that it doesn’t just get brushed under the carpet.


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