How should organisations be handling workplace stress?

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 Mar 2010

01 Mar 2010 • by Changeboard Team

What is stress & how should it be handled?

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. These pressures may come from work but even non-work issues can have a huge impact on your employees.

As a manager, it's possible to identify some of the warning signs that might indicate a growth in these pressures within your team. Alongside these indicators, there is also a number of coping mechanisms you can employ to help your people cope with the daily pressure of workplace stress.

Workplace stress - a significant problem

For many people, an element of stress can be productive and positive: often an issue or situation that would cause one person overwhelming stress would be insignificant to someone else.

In addition to this, there may be no one single cause of stress and, for some people, it may be the coexistence of non-workplace pressures that cause symptoms and signs of stress to present in the office.

Yet, regardless of the cause or trigger of workplace stress, its clearly having a significant impact on organisations in the UK. A survey undertaken by the Institute of Management suggests that 75% of executives report stress adversely affects their health, happiness, home life and performance at work. And the HSE indicates that stress is likely to become the biggest risk to business in the early-21st century.

The cost of stress in the workplace

When it comes to the cost of workplace stress, latest figures from the HSE suggest that stress in the workplace costs the country over ??530 million per year, which equates to over 13 million lost working days. These figures look set to rise as one considers the pressure and stress that many employees are experiencing as a result of the credit crunch and recession.

These studies confirm that the cost of neglecting workplace stress can be extremely high and its impact isnt restricted to larger organisations or a particular industry sector. Aside from the financial cost of workplace stress, it can cause other issues, such as reduced productivity, performance and engagement, a decline in customer service, increased sickness absence and a growth in staff turnover.

The failure of organisations to address the issues contributing to workplace stress mean that the cost both financial and emotional of it can snowball and have a dramatic negative impact throughout the organisation. For example, the impact of one persons absence due to stress can have a significant bearing on their colleagues and clients who need to carry on until they return to work.

A proactive approach to managing workplace stress

Employers have a legal obligation when it comes to managing stress in the workplace. Although there is no statute that specifically covers the issue of workplace stress, European Union legislation requires all employers to have a "duty of care to ensure the safety and health of every aspect related to work" in so far as this entails a risk to health and safety. Work-related stress and its causes are included under this directive and therefore organisations need to be proactive when it comes to minimising and managing stress and the causes of it.

When it comes to managing workplace stress, the most important thing to do first is to identify and address the causes of it. There are a number of ways you can begin to understand and measure the extent to which stress is an issue in your organisation. For example, you could utilise existing employee surveys to ask people how theyre feeling and the factors they perceive contribute to increased pressure, as well as using more formal health and safety risk assessments for the organisation.

How might workplace stress come about?

The responses you might expect to receive when it comes to identifying the causes of stress in the workplace might include bullying or harassment, poor line management support, unmanageable workloads, deadlines that put team members under pressure, a negative organisational culture, conflict between colleagues or poor and irregular communications.

Other, predominantly non-work related causes of stress, might include debt or financial issues, alcohol or drug dependency and marital or childcare problems.

Where employees may not be able to vocalise or discuss the issues causing stress, the signs of stress that may present themselves within the organisation could include: increased levels of regular or unexplained absence, poor concentration, low motivation, anxiousness, frustration, depression, mood swings or isolation from their team.

How line managers can help cope with stress

Line managers are a critical and often overlooked channel to help you understand the extent to which stress is an issue for teams and individual employees. After all, they hold a unique position due to their direct link to employees that is arguably closer than the HR or occupational health teams could ever hope to achieve.

However, to be effective in this role, line managers need to be equipped with the necessary skills to quickly identify the signs and symptoms of work and personal issues causing stress in staff and how to effectively communicate with them.

Organisations should invest in relevant training and development to empower and enable line managers to hold constructive, two-way dialogue with their people to ensure appropriate support is offered and made available at an early stage before it becomes a crisis.

Techniques for managing workplace stress

There is no option for employers but to take a proactive approach to managing workplace stress and although some techniques for doing this require an investment of time and money, many are relatively cost-effective and quick to introduce.

Review employee workloads
Take the opportunity presented by regular employee appraisals to assess individual and team workloads.

Are employees under excessive pressure to get everything done? Do they have the necessary skills to prioritise or delegate their work? Are your expectations as a manager reasonable when it comes to delivery targets? Or do employees not have enough to do and are therefore stressed that their talent and ability is not being maximised?

Encourage work/life balance
As a manager, do you set a good example when it come to balancing your personal and professional commitments?

Your team will take their lead from you and if youre burning the midnight oil in the office and stressed about your work, chances are youll be putting pressure on them too, whether you mean to or not.

Make sure you communicate
Do you have a culture that encourages people to talk openly about issues and problems theyre having in the workplace? Having an open door policy and culture that encourages people to raise issues of concern or interest will help people vocalise problems or concerns they may have.

Alongside this, its important to ensure your employees are aware of the support and resources available to them to manage issues contributing to workplace stress, such as employee assistance programmes, helplines and occupational health teams.

Share your management experience
As a line manager, why not consider setting up a support group for others within the organisation.

It can be an opportunity to discuss issues you have had to address and recommend solutions to help you and those concerns manage them in the most productive way.

Act fast when it comes to stress

If we accept that stress is here to stay in the workplace as a result of personal or work related pressures organisations need to take action and ensure they have the appropriate support, resources and experts on hand to minimise the impact it can have.

Tackling issues as soon as they are present is one of the key Lessons when it comes to coping with workplace stress and something that all employers should strive to do.