Claire Neal: Can employers do more to support staff with stress?

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the conversation about workplace mental health, and hopefully encouraged a new perspective on how employers can support staff with stress.

With so many of us converting our home into a place of work, we have been reminded how stressors can come from inside and outside the office environment to seep into our professional lives. Stress can manifest itself in many ways and can be caused by many factors. Individual employees will react differently to different stressors; that is why it is important that managers avoid making assumptions about how members of their team are coping or what they need.

Managers should prioritise building trusting and authentic relationships within their teams. Do managers ask about everyone’s wellbeing? Do they really listen to their response? Do they respond with empathy and are they prepared to act on what they hear? They should be prepared to take practical steps in response: does the team require more resource; can more training, mentoring or supervision be provided to ensure each team member feels supported and confident to fulfil their role? When trusting relationships exist in the workplace and employees feel confident to ask for help when they need it, stress can be tackled early to prevent more serious mental health problems developing.

Consider how much control staff have or can have over their roles. Allowing staff to get involved in setting their objectives at work and allowing them to suggest how they can reach these can reduce stress levels and boost engagement.

Other practical steps can help. Mental Health Awareness Training for managers can include topics such as how to have a supportive conversation and how to create a wellness action plan. We also find that many people underestimate the support their employee assistance programme (EAP) can provide, so employers should remind staff of this and really champion it in their organisation. Remember, EAPs provide short-term solution-focused support so are most effective when accessed at the early stages of an issue arising.

A line manager’s first step when considering their role in supporting staff with stress is to check their own wellbeing. Role-modelling good work habits, such as taking breaks and logging off at a reasonable time, all send clear messages to the wider team that it is important to look after yourself.

Managers should be the beacon of best practise when it comes to wellbeing, as it is hard to support someone if you yourself are struggling to manage your own stress levels.

Claire Neal is head of workplace mental health at Mental Health UK