April held stress awareness month to raise public awareness about the causes and cures of modern day stress.
According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Last year it conducted a survey of over 4,500 people regarding stress, which cited that 92% of people sometimes feel that they are under too much pressure at work. The MHF estimate that work related stress costs the UK 10.4 million working days each year.
What is stress?
Stress is one of the last connections modern day humans have with their pre-historic ancestors. Put simply, it is the fight or flight mechanism designed to put our bodies into a heightened state, cognitively and physically, to deal with pressurised situations.
There is no accepted medical definition of stress, due in part to the fact that both cause and effect are so personal. A stressful situation to one individual may not illicit the same reaction from another, and so it is important to be empathetic in dealing with cases of work-related stress.
Stress manifests itself in varying ways. Physical reactions to stress can include tiredness, headaches, dizziness and an upset stomach. Cognitively, stress can cause memory issues, a lack of concentration, poor judgment and heightened feelings of anxiety. The emotional effects can include feelings of depression, a sense of overwhelming and loneliness.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) described the rise in stress-related health conditions, like those discussed above, as a 'world-wide epidemic'. In the last year, 11 million working days have been lost to stress-related absence across the UK. Damaging to both employees long-term health and companies productivity, reducing consequences of stress has become a key priority for businesses.
What are the key causes of stress?
The 2018 UK Workplace Stress Survey identified that the most common cause of stress in the workplace was lengthy working hours (21% of respondents), with concerns about colleague's performance coming second (14% of respondents).
Factors that contribute to stress do not act in a vacuum and can be both internal and external. One often-cited key cause of stress is a lack of work-life balance, with many workers finding the demands of the workplace increasingly encroaching on their home and personal lives. Whilst advances in technology can help to alleviate stress (as discussed below), it can also contribute to the perception of a lack of balance that can contribute to stress. The MHF found that 40% of employees feel they are neglecting other aspects of their life due to work.
Concerns about job security can also cause stress. A lack of security in work can lead to increased isolation that can be hard to recover from. Employers should be mindful that an employee's ability to "bounce back" from a sense of isolation or drop in confidence is heavily dependent on the mindset of the individual. Employers also need to be aware that worries about job security can be driven by both personal issues as well as wider economic conditions.
A lack of purpose or direction at work is another factor that can contribute to stress. This can lead to poor performance and a lack of engagement. Stress can also occur when changes take place and it is imperative that an employer manages any changes effectively. Employees should be made aware of the importance and scope of their role both at the time of any changes and going forward.
Finally, weak relationships with colleagues can create discipline problems and reduce communication within teams, leading to isolation and a build-up of stress without any platform to discuss issues. This cause of stress is enhanced in under-resourced teams with a high workload and in workplaces where out-of-date or under-utilised technology and/or support are an issue, especially where employees are working to tight deadlines.
What can your business do?
It is vital that employers reduce factors which contribute to stress occurring in the workplace for the well-being of their staff. However in addition, employers that prioritise work-life balance can maintain a healthy and productive workforce and in turn can become more attractive to potential employees and improve their culture and brand reputation.
Tackling workplace stress takes time, and employers will not be able to tackle all of the causes of workplace stress overnight. Nonetheless, , employers might wish to consider taking the following small steps…
Review and update health and safety guidelines
Having and following health and safety guidelines that discuss and highlight the importance of mental well-being can help employees to feel that they are supported during times of stress. Stress audit questionnaires can also highlight concerns that employees may have which could be detrimental to work-life balance.
Lead by example
Managers ought to be aware of the causes of workplace stress and how to combat it. In the most serious cases, this would involve identifying employees who are struggling and offering confidential services and referrals to appropriate counselling and treatment. On a day-to-day basis, this can involve talking informally to employees to identify red flags. This should be combined with regular monitoring and evaluation of policies against performance indicators and the promotion of discussions around mental health.
Discussions between colleagues can mitigate negative feelings that may be causing stress at work and can increase productivity, root out issues that staff are facing and improve team cohesion. The giving and receiving of feedback can also help an employee to feel valued and invested in. This directly reduces job insecurity and provides employees with an understanding of their role and purpose in the business. Holding appraisals and preparing personal development plans which demonstrate to employees that they are an asset for the business can also act as a solution to stress relating to their role and future.
Make the most of technology
Businesses invest thousands of pounds every year in technologies which are sometimes under-utilised as a solution to workplace stress. Agile working and remote access can mean that employees are able to work from anywhere, which can provide them with more control over their hours and place of work. This can in turn reduce stress and help to re-establish work-life balance. In addition, HR software can assist in highlighting absences and pick up any issues that employees may have in good time and before they become a problem.