Stress is one of the greatest obstacles to functioning normally in our daily lives. Is stress affecting your workforces’ ability to work efficiently? In 2016, UK business recorded 11.7million days that were taken off work due to stress, anxiety, and depression. The financial cost of this equated to at least £2.4billion.
Stress is a psychological problem rather than a physical one and affects most of us at some point in our lives. According to the Health & Safety Executive, the main work factors cited by respondents as causing work-related stress were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.
Stress in the workplace
In the UK between 2015 and 2016, there were almost 500,000 cases of anxiety, depression and stress in the workplace. The most common occupations to report higher levels of stress sat within public service industries, such as healthcare and teaching professionals. Indeed, the overall numbers show that 37 percent of all work related sickness was attributed to stress.
The issue isn’t just bound to the UK either, recent research by the American Psychological Association revealed that 24 percent of adults reported experiencing extreme levels of stress. This has led to the majority of respondent adults reporting at least one chronic illness.
Considering the numbers, it is likely that a selection of your workforce has had to deal with stress at some point in their career. So what can a company do to help their employees avoid the signs of stress?
Identifying stress and strain on worker health
An employee’s ability to cope with the demands made upon them may be adversely affected by a change in circumstances at home or at work. Perhaps they’ve suffered bereavement or maybe a build-up of small worries that play on your mind constantly. More prevalently than the financial cost to business, stress will have a detrimental and serious effect on health if left unchecked.
Anyone who has suffered with stress knows that the ability to think rationally is impaired. However, the physical effects are frightening particularly if you haven’t correlated them with stress. The most common symptoms that can help identify when an employee is potentially suffering from stress include:
- Panic attacks
- Decreased libido
- Chest pain
- Stomach upset
- Muscle cramps
- High blood pressure
Panic attacks can occur with those suffering from stress, and is the most obvious outward sign of when a company should see whether support is needed. Panic attacks come in the form of struggling to breathe, pains in the chest and are brought on by hyperventilating. Something as simple as breathing into a paper bag will stop the panic attack allowing you to breathe normally.
As an employer, support for the worker is an imperative step towards a quick recovery. Reassuring employees that there is someone to talk to within the company will give an outlet to vocalise any problems that employees may be having. If possible, regular one to one sessions with team leaders or line managers will help to spot concerns before they develop into requiring time away from work.
Beyond this, company policies that allow the employee sufficient treatment when this is needed. Flexible working can allow the employee to get the treatment if needed during work hours.
In the long term, stress is extremely harmful to a person’s health and wellbeing. This is particularly the case when the source of stress has long gone but the stress continues. In turn, the effect on the company will be far more disruptive for not assisting in stemming the cause of the stress early in the process. Chronic stress can lead to immunity becoming weaker, allowing a heightened vulnerability to diseases and viruses. In short, your body ceases to function normally.
An individual’s response to stress can differ enormously, though chronic stress can seriously affect health if left unchecked leading to hypertension, diabetes, coronary disease, clinical depression among other conditions.
Employers have a responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees, including stress and conducting risk assessments for work-related illness.
How HR professionals can assist employees managing stress levels
When employees feel that they are valued by their company and are involved in its operation they are happier. Excellent communication between managers and staff is key to identifying where the problem lies.
Employee wellness programs can be implemented by HR that are designed to assist workers with the management of their stress. Identify which will fit with the company and workforce before and start tackling employee stress.
- What are your employees citing as the main cause of stress? Studies show the most prevalent reason is workload. Consider looking into delegating work more effectively throughout the company or hiring more staff.
- Does the workload come from client pressure? This can be managed simply by talking to employees and ensure they are able to say ‘no’ to requests where necessary. Promising a delivery of tasks might help in the short term, but it will increase the pressure and harm relations in the long-term.
- Ensure flexibility in working hours and that jobs match employees’ capabilities. If changes are being made that may impact on employees inform them in advance. Invite their input to keep them in the loop. If they feel their suggestions are appreciated and opinions respected, they will be more comfortable with modifications.
- If practical the company could provide some form of entertainment in staff break rooms. The tech sector leads the way with providing office spaces with relaxation areas, as well as indoor sports activities. Other company perks offered by businesses include offering extra days holiday for birthdays, free food in the office, and free bicycle repairs at the office to encourage fitness. If impractical employees can simply be offered discounts for spa breaks or any other perk that encourages healthy living.
- Tackle absenteeism and assist employees in returning to work by using applicable health services such as occupational health and back to work interviews.
- Make confidential stress counselling available to employees either in or outside of the workplace.
- Managers should lead by example. In today’s world, the “do as I say” approach has to be backed up with “do as I do”. Skipping lunch, not taking holidays, working excessive hours and leading an unhealthy lifestyle does not present an image employees should aspire to.
- Stress can cause smokers to increase the amount their smoking. Relief from stress is temporary in comparison to the long term unhealthy effects of smoking, though now alternatives are available to help smokers cut down. Encourage people with an incentive scheme to use e-cigarettes, nicotine chewing gum or patches.
Your employees are the most valuable assets in a company, and looking after wellbeing throughout the office is imperative to maintaining productivity. Take preventative measures rather than waiting until staff are being affected by stress by being pro-active.
About the author: Elizabeth Walker is the Commercial Director of a Hertfordshire based digital marketing company, Distinctly. She has responsibility for HR management and her expertise encompasses all aspects of HR best practice.