How to develop a strategy to address workplace stress

workplace stress

Need to know:

  • A stress epidemic is plaguing UK workers. With roles changing fast and technology demanding longer working days than ever before, employees are increasingly at risk of burnout.
  • To tackle the issue, employers should adopt a three-pronged approach, making wellness an everyday focus.
  • By taking simple actions to reduce the stigma associated with stress, employers can help their staff to become happier and healthier.

Stress is reaching epidemic levels among UK workers. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of UK employees experience stress in their jobs, according to research by Robert Half, published in March 2016.

This is not just damaging to individuals, it seriously dents productivity. In 2015-16, stress accounted for 45% of all working days lost to ill health, according to the Labour force survey 2016, published in November 2016 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Yet stress can be very difficult for employers to tackle. Why? Firstly, some stigma still exists around taking time out because of stress. Encouragingly though, attitudes are changing, as we saw at the end of June 2017 when a chief executive officer’s warm response to a worker’s e-mail saying she was taking a mental health day went viral.

Secondly, people experience stress for many different reasons. One is that, thanks to technology, change is happening much more quickly. Iain McMath, chief executive officer at Sodexo Benefits and Reward Services, says: “I think some of the evidence we are seeing demonstrates that a lot of [employers] aren’t where they need to be in the cycle of the business.

“We have more [employers] with a mismatch of competencies to requirements. I think that’s where we see a trend, and that’s when burnout is happening. People are desperate to achieve and passionate about what they are doing, but they feel very accountable. There is a void where they can’t deliver what they want to because of these issues.”

Developing a stress toolkit
The challenge when it comes to creating a workplace stress strategy is that everyone is different. What one person finds stressful, another may find soothing.

Emails on smartphones are a prime example. Sue Shaw, founding partner at HR consultancy Journey HR, says: “Some people would say ‘it’s great, it allows me to file emails on holiday and delete them – I’m done! Then when I get back I don’t have 8,000 emails; I have dealt with them’.” Others resent checking emails on holiday.

Therefore, it is a good idea for employers to offer a range of support tools to cover all bases. There are three main stress triggers: physical, mental, and financial, explains Shaw.

Some people feel stressed when they are not looking after themselves physically; this is where exercise classes and nutritional support come in. Employees who struggle with mental health might need access to a counsellor, resilience training or perhaps support from a charity like Mind. Meanwhile those concerned about money issues might need access to a financial adviser or online resources on dealing with debt.

A three-pronged strategy will support everyone, says Shaw. With a variety of options available, if a weekly yoga class does not work for one person, they can take up a new hobby with some employer-supported budget or attend a financial wellbeing clinic.

Consistency of approach, along with buy-in from senior leadership, can make all the difference, says Dr Mitesh Patel, medical director at health insurer Aetna International. “[Employers] really have to get management and the senior leadership team buying into it,” he adds. “Once [they] hold these events on a regular basis, such as regular runs and encouraging as many people to take part, that starts to foster great habits.”

Empowering others is an effective route to a healthy workplace, says Kate Parker, HR and wellbeing lead at PR firm Foster Communications. “If [an employer has] someone in the business who is a runner, then get them to lead park runs,” she says. “If [it has] someone who loves mindfulness, encourage them to run sessions. Find champions so that it’s not just up to one person.”

Recognising signs of stress
Employers should also upskill managers to recognise the signs of stress, says Lee Lomax, chief executive officer and co-founder at employee communications firm Beem. “Many [employers] are unable to effectively address mental health concerns in the workplace simply because they have no insight into who needs support and what support they need,” says Lomax. “Conducting surveys and speaking with line managers is a good way to determine a starting point and to identify the extent of the challenge. From there, it’s important to think about up-skilling managers. With only 22% of front-line managers having received training in stress awareness, [according to Business in the Community’s National employee mental wellbeing survey published in October 2016], there is a clear opportunity for improvement.”

Another stressor is out-of-work situations, such as an ill family member. Offering people the option to take unpaid leave or work from home temporarily can make all the difference, says Patel. “Normally it does go in a few weeks with acute situations; having work pressure on at the same time doesn’t help and can be counterproductive,” he explains.

More and more solutions are being developed to help employers support stressed workers. Former investment strategist Lorena Puica, who herself suffered from work-related burnout, has launched one. iamYiam is a digital platform that helps people to analyse the causes of their stress and find the most effective solutions to help them meet their health goals. She describes it as “a wellbeing manager in a box”.

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Staff take an initial questionnaire, which is followed up with a DNA test. From these results, a personal plan is developed with recommended therapies, which could include mindfulness, yoga or cognitive behavioural therapy, for example.

The best place to start is by simply opening up a conversation about stress, as law firm Blake Morgan did. By breaking down barriers, employees are more likely to feel they can open up, creating a happier and healthier workforce.