Carrying out stress audits for staff wellbeing

Stress in the workplace can have serious consequences for an employer. An employee audit can reveal any problems, but the solutions need not be expensive, says Sally Hamilton

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Stress audits must have senior management backing.
  • Employers could consider a DIY audit using the Health and Safety Executive’s management standards.
  • They should not just file the findings away in a drawer. Instead, they should look for some quick wins to keep up the momentum.
  • Management training and stress management courses are useful preventative measures.
  • Repeat the audit periodically to measure progress.

Stress is a key trigger of long-term absence among workers. Its effects can also be felt in poor employee performance, bad relationships in the workplace, staff turnover and even accidents. If that were not enough to spur employers into action, another incentive is the ever-looming threat of litigation under Health and Safety at Work legislation, as developing stress-related illness is increasingly seen as a work hazard.

Carrying out a stress audit is one way employers can find out if they have a stress problem and help prevent its damaging effects. Kate Bawden, an associate at Mercer, says: “The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has more or less insisted that people carry out some form of stress auditing and, to help them, it has drawn up its own management standards.”

The HSE takes employees’ emotional wellbeing seriously enough to have issued improvement notices to employers that are not deemed to be meeting standards.

Stress audits

A basic stress audit involves asking staff, either throughout an organisation or in a particular department, to answer key questions anonymously about their job and their employer. This is usually carried out using an online or paper-based questionnaire either with standard questions or ones that have been adapted to suit an employer’s needs. A blanket stress audit can provide an insight into an organisation’s cultural norm, while more in-depth audits, involving meetings with key managers and focus groups of employees, are likely to highlight stress hotspots.

Employers can also use the HSE’s free management standards tool, which covers six key strands including demands on employees, control, support, relationships, their understanding of their role and organisational change. Many providers and consultants have based their audit schemes on this tool.

Eugene Farrell, business manager at Axa Icas, says: “The big advantage of audits is that employees have an opportunity to say something about their situation and feel they have a stake in making the changes. Employers do not need expensive consultants to carry out the audit, although sometimes they may need consultants to help interpret the results and to benchmark their organisation against others.”

Repeating the process

For a scheme to succeed, the results should be recorded in a reasonably formal way. Repeating the process at least every couple of years can help employers to monitor progress. Bawden says: “You also need senior management to buy into the idea, to accept the results and act on them. There is an issue for many in that they feel they cannot make the changes. They tick the box of having carried out an audit and then do nothing. It can be dangerous to do this as it raises expectations among employees.”

Uncertainty about the cost of taking action can be a deterrent, but Pauline Bratton, client development manager at First Assist, says it does not need to be expensive. “Often staff know what it takes to put things right and that is why focus groups are valuable. We had a case where staff felt under extreme pressure because they were receiving blanket emails rarely relevant to them. The focus group voted emails should be sent only to directly relevant employees. That stressor was sorted overnight at no cost.”

She also cites the example of an organisation going through a period of change that successfully defused a pressure point by including an update on the changes at the weekly staff briefing, so staff felt they were being kept in the loop.

Changing employee workload

Bawden agrees that quick wins after an audit are crucial. “It is quite simple to introduce a team meeting once a week or to change someone’s workload or allow them time off to sort out issues at home,” she says. “Sometimes it can be a case of just tweaking what policies are already there and reminding managers of what is available to help, such as flexible working.”

Certain actions will have a cost, she adds. “The hotspot might be caused by lack of equipment or support, but it may not cost that much to put in the right equipment or to offer that support.”

If a particular manager emerges as a problem, training is a possible solution. Stress management courses, which can last an hour or so, can teach staff and managers to spot the signs of stress in others and themselves, so they can tackle it at an early stage.

Benefits such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can also be considered. “Employees do not leave their domestic problems at the gate,” says Farrell. “Organisations can encourage employees to make use of an EAP, if they have one.”

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