Identifying, Managing, and Preventing Stress in the Workplace

By Andrew Willis
06 Nov 2018

Today is National Stress Awareness Day. A day to reflect on what we can do to help ourselves, and others, better manage the stress they feel on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, despite the fact that National Stress Awareness Day has been promoting meaningful conversation about the issue since 1998, seven in ten union representatives say stress remains one of the main issues facing the British workforce.

No workplace is devoid of stress. A recent survey by Perkbox revealed that 59% of adults cite work as their most common cause of stress, with only 9% saying they never feel stress due to work. This is a huge number, and while some stress at work is to be expected, recurring or severe levels of stress can only have a detrimental effect on morale and enthusiasm.

The common signs of stress

The first step in tackling stress in the workplace is identifying it. This isn’t as difficult as some employers may believe, as most employees will be upfront if you have an informal chat with them about their stress levels. Those who aren’t will show it in their work ethic and their behaviour toward colleagues.

There are a few tell-tale signs you can look out for to identify when an employee is under a lot of stress at work. These are:

  1. An increase in unexplained absence or sick leave
  2. Poor performance or timekeeping
  3. Poor decision making
  4. A lack of energy
  5. Uncommunicative or moody behaviour

Stress tends to wear a person down slowly over time, so it can sometimes be tricky to identify as you may grow accustomed to an employee acting a certain way. There is only so much you can do as an employer, and an employee’s stress may not be at all related to their work life, so try and identify when an individual is acting in the ways listed above, and see if there are any adjustments that can be made to the workplace to help them.

Managing workplace stress

So, how can you best support your employees once you have identified they are under a lot of stress?

  1. Workplace support – Encouraging your employees to take regular breaks, carrying out debriefs after particular stressful periods, and signposting relevant support channels are all ways you can support an employee. Training managers to be more mental-health aware and making sure they are equipped to help employees with poor mental health is another way you can make employees under a lot of stress feel supported.
  2. Promote a positive culture – Despite significant progress, mental health is still considered a somewhat taboo subject. Many employers are reluctant to permit days off work for poor physical health, let alone mental health. Promoting a positive culture is an ongoing effort, it isn’t enough to include a section on mental health in the employee handbook or mention it in passing in a team presentation. Make an effort every day to make sure employees are happy, encourage conversation, be honest, and spread openness around the workplace.
  3. Encourage exercise – This doesn’t have to be strenuous, a simple walk during their lunch break or taking the stairs instead of the lift is enough. Exercise releases endorphins which combat stress. It’s important that you don’t force your employees into exercise, however; attempting to initiate exercise when the employee refuses can lead to an awkward or potentially hostile situation.
  4. Encourage socialising – The same rule applies as before, don’t push the employee too hard into social situations. If they are suffering from anxiety, or just generally are nervous around people, pushing them into a social situation will only make matters worse. Even introverts need a good support network, however, as it is important to an individual’s well-being. Holding team-building exercises that don’t put too much pressure on staff is a great way of encouraging bonding between team members without too much duress.
  5. Encourage mindfulness – Mindfulness (if suitable) is a great way of encouraging employees to deal with stress on their own terms. This isn’t a substitute for actual change if there is an issue in your workplace or in the employee’s life, but it can help reduce the stress of the day-to-day challenges of the workplace.
  6. Offer flexible working – Not viable for all workplaces or all roles, but if it is the well-being benefits are second to none. Many workplaces are offering flexible working not just on account of out-of-work commitments, but because it’s an employee benefit that is highly sought after. It can help alleviate some of the stresses felt at home and encourages a healthier work-life balance.
  7. Implement an EAP – An Employee Assistance Programme is a means of providing your employees with much-needed support without intrusion. You are demonstrating a duty of care and emphasising your commitment to the health & wellbeing of your staff. An EAP not only helps your employees combat stress, but it also provides support through a variety of challenges, both inside and outside of work.
  8. Conduct ‘return to work’ interviews – if an employee has had time off due to mental health, make sure you conduct a ‘return to work’ interview to help establish the problem the employee was experiencing and if there are any adjustments you can make in the workplace to accommodate them. It may be that the issue had nothing to do with work, but even in these cases, it is encouraging for the employee to know their employer cares enough to offer.

The most pertinent way of managing employee stress in the workplace is one we haven’t yet mentioned. Pre-empting any potential ‘risk’ areas is a great way of tackling stress-inducing environments and generally bringing down the stress levels of your workforce.

Conducting a stress risk assessment

As an employer, you are obligated to manage stress in the same way you manage health & safety risks. The best way to do this is through a risk assessment.

When conducting a risk assessment for stress, there are a few key factors you need to consider. Knowing what to look for is crucial to the success of the assessment, so make sure you look out for:

  • Lack of managerial support
  • Tight deadlines
  • Too many responsibilities
  • Role uncertainty
  • Workplace violence

There isn’t a standard method of conducting a risk assessment for stress. You can use a variety of methods. You might, for example, issue employees with a questionnaire, including questions relating to the person’s role, their workload, resources, and how their work is arranged in terms of targets and deadlines. This method is the most likely to get you honest feedback and a fair representation of your workplace. It can help you get a wider view of the working environment, facilities, relationships, support arrangements and attitude towards health & safety in your workplace.

If you prefer a more face-to-face approach, you could set up focus groups to discuss the above issues confidentially. Make sure you outline the areas you want to be discussed clearly and make enough for them to be discussed in full detail.

Whichever method you choose, the main focus should always be on your members of staff. Their opinions are the ones that matter, and if they raise issues, then they should at the very least be investigated. If an investigation reveals an underlying issue, resolve it. Show your employees that you value their wellbeing and time by listening and reacting to their feedback.

What do the statistics say?

The HSE’s Work-related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain 2017 report brought a number of statistics to light last year. Firstly, it was found that the larger the workplace, the more likely workers are to experience stress, depression or anxiety.

Feedback from participants found that workload was the most common reason for employees to experience poor mental health in the workplace. Lack of support, violence (or threats of), and role uncertainty were also common reasons employees experienced stress.

The survey also found that professionals, such as nurses, teachers, and lawyers were most likely to experience poor mental health in the workplace, with administrative and secretarial positions close behind them.

Returning to the Perkbox survey, we see that more than one in 10 stated that mental health issues at work caused them to take a sick day, while nearly half of the participants stated their place of work did not have any form of system in place to help reduce employee stress. In a similar vein, the HSE report states that the total amount of days lost in 2017 due to poor mental health was 12.5 million days. This is an average of 23.8 days per case.

A survey by Forth earlier this year found that women are more likely to be stressed than men, as they suffered from stress three more days per month than men on average. The survey also found that residents of Northern Ireland were actually more stressed than the rest of the UK, while work was the primary cause of stress in London, the West Midlands and Yorkshire.

Expert Support

Managing stress, mental health, and wellbeing in the workplace is never a simple issue. Tackling the problem requires effort and collaboration between employers and employees, and should be reflected in your HR policies, as well as your disciplinary, grievance, redundancy, and sickness & absence procedures.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, why not speak to a Croner consultant who can provide expert insight and guidance when dealing with a tough situation. Speak to expert on 01455 858 132.

Croner also offers an Employee Assistance Programme, visit our EAP page for more details on the programme.

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.