What employers should know about workplace stress

If you read nothing else, read this…

• The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”.

• Symptoms of stress include inability to concentrate, memory lapses, negative thinking, panic attacks and tearfulness.

• Employers with a genuine desire to combat workplace stress can start by creating a culture of acceptance about mental illness in general.

Case study: Allianz ensures awareness of staff wellbeing needs

Allianz manages employee stress through a comprehensive wellbeing programme that was launched in 2007 to engage its staff and boost morale. Some 58 wellbeing champions across the insurer’s 24 UK sites are tasked, on a voluntary basis, to devise events based on the company’s quarterly themes.

This year’s themes include improving lifestyles and enhancing resilience, which relate to stress management but with a positive spin, says Banu Gajendran, occupational health and safety manager at Allianz. Other themes will be active lifestyle and sustaining healthy working environments.

Allianz has worked with the Stress Management Society to train its champions to deliver the resilience segment. Also, line managers have been trained to recognise early warning signs of stress in their team and know how to respond appropriately. Mental health charity Mind undertook Allianz’s most recent line manager training sessions.

“These were run to train managers, but also for employees, to encourage them to take ownership [of their issues],” says Gajendran. “Stress is responsible for so many lost days in a year, so we are doing our utmost to try to manage it.”

All 4,500 of Allianz’s UK-based staff have access to an employee assistance programme provided by PPC Worldwide.

Allianz communicates its wellbeing initiatives to staff via intranet and email. It also hosts a one-day wellbeing conference every two years, to which it invites staff and external businesses in the area of its UK head office in Surrey.

But Allianz’s wellbeing strategy does not have a dedicated budget. “It is driven by our management board and cascaded to all our business leaders, so we don’t have to have a separate budget; we can absorb the cost into the business,” says Gajendran. “Each division comes up with its own spend and practice, which we give them guidance on.”

Employers and employees need to work together to tackle the causes and effects of workplace stress, says Clare Bettelley

Everyone is stressed, or so they would have their nearest and dearest, and colleagues, believe. In fact, the economic downturn and uncertainty surrounding job security has resulted in the term stress becoming so accepted in common parlance that genuine sufferers often struggle to be taken seriously.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”, and as a state of mind, not an illness, which can develop into mental and physical illness if it becomes too excessive and prolonged.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Absence management survey, published in October 2011, stress is now the most common cause of long-term absence for both manual and non-manual employees. The most common cause of this stress is workload, followed by management style.

Vanessa Sallows, underwriting and benefits director, group protection, at Legal and General, says: “It is not the economic climate. This is a contributory factor, yes, but year-on-year the increase is because of cultural issues such as the fast pace and high expectations, which are unrealistic. An employee’s role may have changed and they feel they are being asked to do a lot more because their colleagues are off sick and they are being asked to pick up the extra work.”

But Jenny Leeser, clinical director of occupational health at Bupa, suggests that an increased workload is often more about employee perception than reality. “Human beings generally don’t like change, so it may not be the case that they have more work to do, but that there has been a change in their work,” she says.

Any mis-match between employees and their work can be a major cause of stress, says Andrew Smith, a member of the wellbeing, health and mental health research group at the University of Cardiff’s School of Psychology.

“Change can be a huge cause of stress, when employees suddenly find themselves doing very different jobs from those they came in [to the workplace] to do,” he says.

Issues at home can be a factor

But why should employers care, particularly as stress could result from issues at home as much as in the workplace? The cost of stress-related employee absence and its impact on productivity alone should be enough to focus employers’ minds. HSE statistics show that stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 10.8 million days lost due to work-related ill health in 2010/11, with the average number of days lost per case for these conditions (27 days) now far higher than for musculoskeletal disorders (15 days).

A good place for an employer to start building a stress-management strategy is to create a working environment in which employees feel comfortable about admitting to feeling stressed without the fear of being criticised for struggling to cope and deemed incompetent or, worse still, unemployable.

Undertaking a stress audit to ascertain employees’ stress levels will then enable employers to start to identify symptoms and determine the most appropriate type and level of support to give. This can include an employee assistance programme (EAP), which can be provided either as a standalone service or under a group income protection policy. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy aimed at changing a sufferer’s way of thinking, is a popular treatment that a number of healthcare providers offer as part of their income protection products.

Line managers can have key role

Line manager training can also prove invaluable, because it is line managers who are, at least in theory, on the front line interacting regularly with their teams. Eugene Farrell, business manager at Axa PPP Healthcare, suggests training should focus on resilience techniques, including managing workload, communication and positive psychology, to cascade down to team members and help them manage their stress levels. He says: “For some people, it is hard to find really good things happening, and this may not change for some time. This means people are going to have to be really resilient.”

But Legal and General’s Sallows says: “I would warn against creating a lot of amateur psychologies saying ‘you are stressed’. Using performance-management techniques such as ‘I noticed that your performance isn’t what it usually is; is there anything wrong?’ is one approach. It’s not about forcing people to disclose all the terrible things happening to them, but about finding out about things that are impacting them in the workplace. It’s just about being sensitive and aware.”

But Doug Wright, head of clinical development at Aviva UK Health, questions the potential success of such a dialogue between line managers and their team members because of the conflicting objectives involved. A line manager’s aim is typically to increase employees’ productivity to get better financial results, while an employee’s aim is to reduce their stress levels.

Employees must take responsibility

Benefits that employers can offer to help employees take responsibility for their own stress levels include gym membership, bikes-for-work schemes, onsite yoga, meditation and massage sessions, as well as wellbeing events and campaigns promoting the merits of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and good work-life balance.

A comprehensive stress-management policy can also help, as long as it clearly details how the employer deals with stress and where employees can go for support.

Ultimately, effective stress management relies on a partnership between employers and employees, with an agreement between the two parties to each play their part in treating the underlying causes. A multi-level approach may be needed because of the complex nature of stress, but with appropriate selection, application and monitoring, the measures mentioned above can help employees to manage stress levels and employers to improve their bottom line through reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. Such strategies can also help to boost employers’ talent management efforts.

Neil Shah, director of the Stress Management Society, says: “[Organisations] that pay the most are often the least attractive to work for. It is not money that necessarily attracts today’s youth, but a culture and environment that supports them and their creativity.”

Common symptoms of staff stress

• Inability to concentrate
• Memory lapses
• Negative thinking
• Panic attacks
• Tearfulness
• Feeling out of control
• Absenteeism
• Poor time management


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