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Stressed workforce? How to handle it

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In today's high pressured business world, it's not surprising that many employees suffer from stress. Josie Mascott offers her top tips to managers looking to handle stressed teams and promote health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Stress - a real problem in the workplace

Anyone can suffer from stress and indeed figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in 2009/10 an estimated 435,000 people in Great Britain suffered from stress caused or made worse by their current or past work.

This isn’t just bad news for those suffering from stress or depression; it also has major cost implications for employers if not properly managed. Research from the Sainsbury’s centre for mental health estimates that £8 billion could be saved by British businesses if mental health was managed more effectively at work.

Research has also shown that one of the major impacts on work related stress is how managers deal with the issue. Yet many managers may feel ill equipped to support employees suffering from stress and/or depression, even though they are keen to help.
So, what practical steps can line managers take to support employees? Here ate some tactics that I found very effective in my time as a counsellor specialising in workplace stress:

Never assume or judge

It's always a case of asking open questions, for example: "I’ve noticed you don’t seem yourself and was thinking of ways I could support you at this time – what are your ideas?"

Sometimes people feel better being at work, even if they are going through a stressful time - it could be just what they need. You could also avoid the word stress and replace it with pressure or pressurised to take some of the stigma away.

Refer them to occupational health or an employee assistance programme if available, and say you will follow up in a supportive way to see how things are going.

Be aware of signs

Watch for signs like taking a lot of work home, being late when they used to be early and other changes in behaviour.

Always take someone to one side as discreetly as possible. The chances are that they either don't realise they are not feeling well or they are trying to hide it because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the workplace. Say that any conversation you have is going to be confidential unless there is a safety issue involved.

If you can develop a working environment where you have trust from your employees it is a huge step forward as they’ll feel more able to approach you directly if they are having problems.

Be flexible

Offer working at home or adjustment to hours if relevant.  For example someone who is depressed may feel better later on in the day than in the morning. Someone who is stressed or anxious may have problems travelling in the peak of the rush hour.

When I was a counsellor, I always used to think it was far better for someone to work differently for a while than to go off on long term absence. This is something which is a losing situation for both employee and employer – early intervention and making adjustments in the shorter term can be much more beneficial both in terms of the cost of long term absence to the business and the over all wellbeing of the employee.

Watch your own stress levels

Watch your own stress levels and take note of them during the day. Managers who are under pressure and then have an employee who is under performing because of stress sometimes try and resolve it by micro managing, which just heaps the pressure on.

Again, it's about listening to what that person feels they need and then seeing if reasonable adjustments can be made to accommodate that. Also make full use of any resource that your employer offers in terms of support for line managers as part of a wider health and wellbeing package. Or perhaps your organisation may be able to offer you some specific training in this area.

Analyse stress together

If an employee seems overwhelmed you can help by drawing a stress map with them.

List out all the tasks they have, for example, and then ask “on a scale of 1-10 how pressurised does this one make you feel?” Maybe that task can be adjusted. 

You could also do this with departments they interact with or even people if that's not too contentious.

Create a trusting environment

Try and develop a working environment where you have trust from your employees and they feel able to not only come to you with issues around stress but also feel able to push back where appropriate.

When people get stressed, depressed or anxious they become more worried about what people think. This can lead to some saying yes to more than they should. But by fostering an open working environment, you can encourage employees to feel less pressured into agreeing to more work than they can realistically take on.

Promote health & wellbeing at work

There's always a delicate balance to be maintained, as while you have a responsibility to those you line manage, you also have a wider responsibility to your employer to be mindful of the cost implications of employee absence and adjusted working practices.

However, promoting good general health and wellbeing practices, fostering an open and trusting working environment and equipping yourself to recognise potential signs of stress and deal with it sensitively can really benefit all involved.

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