Stress affects us all. In the simplest way, it is the body’s response to pressure from situations or our surroundings. In many cases, stress can be helpful; for example, in public speaking, where the stress is short-lived and we can quickly reset to normal. Sometimes, though, stress becomes problematic, and its effects longer lasting.
Many factors can contribute to feelings of stress, but work can be a particularly influential factor; in the fast-paced workplace of today, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the implications the always-on work culture has. Stress levels can rise quickly and have significant effects on all aspects of wellbeing.
In terms of mental health, stress can lead to behavioural changes and even anxiety and depression. Physically, it can impact everything from sleep to digestion, eating habits to memory. Alongside the effects on health and wellbeing, stress can also negatively impact performance at work, leading to disengagement and demotivation.
How stressed are UK workers?
One of the best ways to assess the impacts of stress on the workforce is to look at sickness absence. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that in 2018/19, 12.8 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to its Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2019, published in October.
The CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and wellbeing at work 2019 report, published in April 2019, shows that stress-related absence has increased over the last year for almost two-fifths of UK organisations. In fact, stress is cited as one of the main causes of both short- and long-term absence, in 54% and 47% of organisations respectively. Moreover, employers are considerably more likely to report that stress-related absence has increased than decreased over the last year.
So, what can cause work-related stress? Heavy workloads are a factor that has consistently hit the top spot, as three-fifths of organisations surveyed for the CIPD/Simplyhealth report say this is the main cause. Other common causes include management style, relationships at work, and family issues.
What can employers do?
The good news is that an increasing number of organisations are acknowledging the problem of work-related stress, and nearly three-quarters are taking practical steps to address it.
While the methods for identifying and reducing stress can be wide-ranging, improving work-life balance is a huge area of concentration. Through flexible working options, employers can help staff redress that balance, perhaps allowing time for stress-reducing activities such as exercise classes.
Sometimes, people might need further help. This is where a service like an employee assistance programme (EAP) can really help. With an EAP, employees can speak confidentially to a trained professional, who could help them identify the cause of their stress, and develop techniques to deal with it.
As the people on the front line, managers play a pivotal role in maintaining workplace wellbeing, and training is integral. It is important for them to be able to spot the signs that someone is struggling with managing stress levels, and signpost that person to further help and support.
Given the serious effects work-related stress can have on health, wellbeing and performance, it is imperative for employers to take action. They must put practical plans in place to help all employees manage stress in a healthy way.
Pam Whelan is director at Simplyhealth