Managing stress in the workplace - how can employers cultivate a stress-free workforce?

Written by
Changeboard Team

28 Feb 2010

28 Feb 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Over 400,000 stressed employees

Last year, workplace stress levels rose, not surprising with the tough economic climate. We saw redundancies and repossessions, all-in-all, a difficult year. Over 400,000 people believe that stress at work is making them ill and 16.7% of workers would describe their job as very or extremely stressful.

By the end of 2009, a staggering 11.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression.

How can workplace stress affect productivity?

The impact of stress on the business can be massive. On average if someone is off sick with work-related stress, they are absent for 26.8 days, a stark contrast to the typical two to three days taken off for physical illnesses.

Consider the financial and resource implications of having to pay temporary workers, sick leave, or in severe cases, having to employ and train new staff, it can be a real burden on any HR or people management professional. Aside from working days lost, stress can cause a drop in productivity and change peoples attitudes to work and life.

We might be out of the recession, but stress is still a real issue in modern day workplaces regardless of the industry so its important for businesses to take the necessary steps to manage it.

At St John Ambulance, weve seen more businesses and individuals signing up for stress awareness courses, hoping to minimise stress levels and get their workforce back to performing at its best. This is a good sign, but we still urge more businesses to take steps to minimise, if not prevent stress.

What are the symptoms of stress?

One of biggest hurdles with stress is recognising it. Unlike other health and safety issues, stress is not tangible, which makes it all the more difficult to manage or measure. There are some common signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for such as:

  • increased susceptibility to colds and other infections
  • headaches
  • constant tiredness
  • short temperedness
  • loss of motivation
  • overeating
  • excessive smoking /drinking

These might sound like everyday ailments, but if any of these are sustained, they may well be a manifestation of stress. This means stress can often go unnoticed, but does not mean it should be ignored.

Implement stress management schemes

Any good stress management scheme, also considers seasonal stress. Stress levels might increase at certain times of the year Christmas, financial Results, major events for your business or industry. Armed with this information, you can be ready to put measures in place way before they happen.

There is no quick-fix solution to stress as every workplace is different, so it may take some time to work out what initiatives would work best. Before embarking on a programme of stress management, Id recommend the leaders of the initiative have a training session to help them identify the early signs of stress and what measures to take to avoid it.

Communication - key in tackling stress

If you are serious about combating stress, communication is vital. Without employers and employees having clear channels of communication, even the most thorough stress management programmes can fail. Keep staff up-to-date and make them feel that they are part of the process.

Something as simple as a questionnaire can obtain immediate feedback, while demonstrating the businesss commitment to combating unnecessary stress. This can be done quickly and anonymously and can yield useful insights. You can then start looking at how you can reduce stress and look to prevent it in the future.

There are a number of measures that can be taken, varying in time, cost and resource requirements. The feasibility of these depends on the industry and workplace. 

Establishing a staff committee, where stress triggers can be discussed and ideas shared, can help employees to feel involved. This kind of activity isnt something you can just pay lip service to. It is important to listen and be open to ideas from all staff in order to get to the root of the problem. Having done this, youd need to provide regular updates and demonstrate progress.

Stress management programmes - tips for employers

Stress management programmes dont need to be expensive or time consuming. In fact, small, inexpensive steps have proven to reduce stress in a short amount of time.

For example, hanging a punch bag in an office or staff room can provide staff with a fun way of relieving tension. This has been done by some of the worlds biggest companies.

Offices can be very noisy, stressful environments, but some people work much better if they are free from distractions. If you have the space to do so, try setting up a time-out zone. This will give staff a quiet place to work or have a five minute break.

Small change can be effective in combating stress

The cheapest, most simple step that can be taken by any organisation, which is forgotten far too often, is praise. Managers and peers are often quick to reprimand poor work but slow to praise good work. Many people dont realise the impact a few positive words can make for someone to feel appreciated and more at ease at work. 

Although it may not be possible to fully implement it in all industries, flexible working can also help alleviate stress. Flexible working does not simply mean a change in working hours. Most staff would be happy to know that their employers are willing to show some degree of flexibility where they can. For example, allowing them to sometimes work away from their desk or at home, or to take their lunch break at any time during the day.

Invest now, get long term Benefits

Aside from the smaller activities, there are some other, more ambitious steps that could be investigated. Exercise is proven stress reliever, so investing in an in-house gym or arranging a staff discount for a local gym, can work wonders.

Relaxation and breathing can also alleviate tension, so why not book regular relaxation classes for staff. Some businesses also have visits from masseurs.

Managing stress - long-term solutions. EAPs

Stress management should be a commitment and long-term if it will be tackled once and for all. Ad hoc activities when stress levels are high, will only work in the short term.

Employee assistance programmes (EAP) are becoming increasingly popular. These forums help employees to deal with personal problems that might adversely impact their work performance, health, and well-being. EAPs generally include assessment, short-term counselling and referral services.

Goals towards a stress-free environment

A commitment to continuous improvement should also be adopted. Regularly assess what is or isnt working and why.

It's important to keep detailed records of any findings in order to reach the goal of a stress-free (as possible) workplace.

It is possible, so I encourage everyone to start now and see how your workforce can change for the better.