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How to reduce and minimise stress in the workplace

Stress. Most of us have felt it from time to time. In fact, stress in the workplace is often unavoidable. It’s likely that most of us perceive a small amount of stress to be acceptable, possibly even welcome. But did you know that 13.7 million workdays are lost each year because of work-related stress, anxiety, and depression, at an annual cost of £28.3 billion? (Source: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence)

Work related stress is a significant problem, causing illness and disease, and is linked to high levels of absence, increased staff turnover, and general organisational underperformance.

April is Stress Awareness Month. But with 76% of employees reporting moderate to high levels of stress, are employers doing enough to combat the issue? The CIPD’s 2022 Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey states that more employers are recognising stress as an issue and are taking steps to tackle it.

Could April 2023 be a good time for you to complete a Corporate Wellbeing Audit to ensure that you are doing everything you can for your employees and organisation?

What are the main causes of workplace stress?

  • According to CIPD, workload and volume of work is the top cause of work-related stress.
  • Lack of control over work processes, decision making, or performance management can lead to feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed.
  • Lack of support and senior staff members. Work related stress is compounded when employees feel like they are not being supported by colleagues, supervisors, and management. Managers play a vital role in the mental health of their employees, and those who are critical, overbearing, and micromanaging are inevitably a source of stress.
  • Whilst peer relationships can be a source of comfort and support, the opposite can also be true. The Workplace Health Report 2023, states that 20% of employees cite their colleagues as a cause of stress.
  • Non-work factors can also lead to stress in the workplace. These could be relationships, health concerns and illness, or family issues.

When completing your wellbeing audit/risk assessment, additional factors such as working conditions and hours, organisational structure and culture, job security and training needs, should also be considered.

Recognising the signs of stress in your employees

Symptoms of stress will vary hugely from employee to employee, so it is important not to generalise or to assume everyone is okay. Spotting signs and symptoms of stress in your employees is an important part of being a manager. Stress related symptoms generally fall into three categories: emotional, mental, and behavioural.

Here are eight signs of employee stress:

  1. Working longer hours: someone struggling with their workload may feel that they have no other choice but to spend more time at work. Look for out for employees who suddenly start coming to work earlier or leaving later, they may need help.
  1. Underperformance: someone who is making uncharacteristic errors may be distracted by feelings of stress.
  1. Increased sensitivity: when an employee is stressed through work, they may be overly sensitive or emotional. You may find that a previously easy-going employee becomes sad or cries at the drop of a hat.
  1. Withdrawal: an employee stressed by work may start to withdraw from any work-related social activity, including out of work events.
  1. Tiredness/Lack of energy: workplace stress can have a huge impact on every facet of a person’s life. It’s not unusual for a stressed person to struggle to sleep. If an employee is coming into work visibly tired, they may be stressed. Likewise, general malaise or lack of energy in someone who was previously ‘full of beans’, is cause for concern.
  1. Irritability or aggression: an uplift in irritability, nervousness or moodiness could be thanks to stress. Likewise, increased anger or aggression, picking fights or clashing with people with whom they previously got on, could all be signs that someone is feeling pressured.
  1. Time off: are any of your employees reluctant to take their holidays? This could be a sign that they are worried about falling behind on their work. Conversely, employees who are booking more time off than usual may be avoiding the workplace and the negative feelings they associate with it.
  1. Nervousness: have any of your employees suddenly become nervous around you, their managers, or colleagues? Sweating, shaking, or stumbling over speech are all signs of stress.

Once again, this is not an exhaustive list. You must use your judgement on what constitutes a cause for concern and take appropriate action.

 What can you do as an employer?

Everybody’s capacity to manage stress is different, which raises the importance of an individualised approach to stress management within your organisation. There are, however things you can do to support your employees and business.

Recognise the signs and early intervention

Spotting the signs of an issue can prevent it escalating, leading to severe illness or worse. If you do spot any of the signs, it may be worth having a confidential chat with your employee to see how they are and offer any support they need to combat stress and to reassure them that you will put systems in place to tackle the causes. If you need help with this, the HSE has produced a Talking Toolkit which will guide you through this conversation and process.

Have a plan: The Thriving at Work Report 2017 suggests that employers should produce, implement, and communicate a Mental Health at Work Plan that promotes good mental health for all and outlines the support available for those who need it. Furthermore, you should promote mental health awareness, encourage open conversations about mental health, signpost the support that is available, and offer appropriate workplace adjustments to employees who need them.

Nurture relationships: Being open, approachable, and responsive is essential. It stands to reason that if you really know your staff, you should be able to spot any uncharacteristic changes in their behaviour. Encouraging your line managers to have the same open and honest relationships will build a culture of openness and trust. In this environment, people will feel comfortable to broach the subject of stress and mental health.

Monitor workloads: It may seem obvious, but given that an out-of-control workload is the top workplace stress inducer, it is important to monitor them regularly. Sometimes we are so busy, we forget or lose sight of what our staff have on their plates, but roles are often fluid, and a conscientious employee may take on tasks that were previously outside their remit. Talk to your employees, see how they are getting on and be seen to be making changes where necessary.

Be a role model: Regardless of the plans or measures you put in place, it is vital that you act as a role model and lead from the front. If you want to adopt an open, communication rich culture, then you must ensure that you engage with people. Likewise, if you feel that your staff are staying too late and not achieving a satisfactory work-life balance, then make sure you show them that you value your own work-life balance and go home on time occasionally.

Mika Psyllaki, Managing Director at Perform HR said:

Workplace stress is not a problem that will resolve itself and it should not be accepted as a normal requirement of working life. It is your responsibility to demonstrate your commitment to your employees’ wellbeing and mental health. How you respond to your employees’ needs in times of difficulty and stress will define how they see you as an employer, and building a happy environment will ultimately make you a more attractive employer.

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