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Work-related stress is the major cause of absence and sickness in Britain. According to a report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), around 17.0 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22, and it accounts for the major reason for people taking sick leave. According to the HSE report, 914,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2021/22 and 372,000 workers suffered from a new case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22.
We need to ask ourselves, what is going wrong in the British workplace? If so many people are struggling with this common problem, does it suggest there is something badly wrong with most workplace practices? Going to work should not be making us ill, yet the statistics suggest that this is exactly what is happening. However, it should be noted that according to the HSE, in 2021/22, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic were found to be a major contributory factor to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
What is stress?
Stress is a physical reaction to danger, and it is not necessarily a bad thing because it is the body’s survival mechanism. Our bodies evolved to live in a dangerous world where we needed to react to danger as a matter of life or death.
When we feel under threat, our stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – start pumping around our bodies. Our bodies go into the “flight or flee” response as we prepare for physical action; either by fighting or running away.
The stress response gives us a rush of energy in order to face a perceived danger. Common stress symptoms include the heart pounding and our blood flow being diverted to muscles rather than the brain, which sometimes means we cannot think straight.
We can feel and act aggressively because our bodies may be telling us it is time to fight! Alternatively, we may try to avoid stressful situations and this only adds to stress because these stressors cannot be avoided by running away.
In modern times of danger, such as a car accident or a war situation, this stress response is necessary because it prepares us for action. The problem is that in the modern world our bodies cannot always tell the difference between a life-changing event, such as an attack from a sabre tooth tiger (a real threat for our cavemen ancestors), or a pile of paperwork on our desk with not enough time to complete it and an angry line manager with deadlines to meet.
In more simple times, once the stressful event was over, our bodies had time to rest and recuperate. Today many people suffer from constant stress which can take a toll on mental and physical health as well as the workplace.
What are the physical symptoms of stress?
Stress is often believed to be a mental health issue only but it does cause a range of physical responses too that can cause serious harm if your stress levels stay elevated for too long. Everyone reacts slightly differently to stress but it can affect the entire body.
- Your stress levels affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. When you are stressed you breathe faster in order to get more oxygen into your blood, which can be dangerous for asthma sufferers.
- Your heart pumps faster under stress because the hormones cause your blood vessels to direct more blood to the muscles, thus causing high blood pressure. This means that your heart is working faster and under strain putting you at risk for a cardiac arrest or stroke.
- When you are stressed your liver produces more glucose in order to provide a burst of energy so if this continues for too long, it does increase the risk of diabetes.
- Stress affects the digestive system too causing issues such as diarrhoea or constipation or nausea. The feeling of being “sick with nerves” is a common side effect of stress.
- You can experience muscle pain and tension.
- It can affect the reproductive system too, with men experiencing a loss of sex drive and periods in women becoming disrupted.
- Stress can weaken the body’s immune system meaning that you are susceptible to every bug that is doing the rounds.
Cognitive effects of stress
Again, everyone is different but it is exhausting to be constantly feeling stressed. Common effects of stress can include:
- Increased anxiety and depression.
- Racing thoughts.
- Disorganisation and an inability to think clearly.
- Not being able to focus.
- Lack of judgement.
How to spot the symptoms of work-related stress
Most of us have never been taught how to handle stress and although it is perfectly normal to experience some stress at work or in our lives, it is a major problem if it continues for too long.
Managers should learn to spot the signs of stress in teams and in individual employees and take action before it escalates.
Signs that indicate employees may be suffering from excessive pressure or stress could be changes in behaviour or performance. The kinds of change that may occur are listed below, but the important point to remember is being alert to any uncharacteristic behaviour in employees whilst not making judgements. It’s important to have an empathetic conversation with someone if you are concerned as a manager.
- Declining/inconsistent performance.
- Uncharacteristic errors.
- Loss of motivation/commitment.
- Lapses in memory.
- Increased time at work.
- Lack of holiday planning/usage.
Conflict and emotional signs
- Undue sensitivity.
- Over-reaction to problems.
- Personality clashes.
- Arriving late to work.
- Leaving early.
- Reduced social contacts.
- Malicious gossip.
- Criticism of others.
- Bullying or harassment.
- Temper outbursts.
- Difficulty relaxing.
- Increased consumption of alcohol.
- Increased smoking.
- Lack of interest in appearance/hygiene.
- Accidents at home or work.
- Nervous, stumbling speech.
- Upset stomach/flatulence.
- Tension headaches.
- Rapid weight gain or loss.
The CIPD 2022 Health and wellbeing at work survey report, in partnership with Simply Health, shows that stress continues to be one of the main causes of short- and long-term absence. Overall, 79% of respondents reported some stress-related absence in their organisation over the last year, and this figure rises to 90% in large organisations (with more than 250 employees). Positively, more employers are recognising stress as an issue and taking steps to tackle stress within their organisations. However, just over half (52%) of respondents in organisations that are taking steps to tackle stress believe that their organisation is effective at managing work-related stress.
Stress relief in the workplace
There are simple and affordable ways to reduce workplace stress and to create a happier working environment. In all of them good management practice is crucially important to the stress levels of employees. It is important to remember that we all react differently to stressful situations so it is important to be understanding in that not everyone will be able to respond to pressure in the same way as you.
Many people who suffer from work-related stress say that they are stressed by their work because they may have not had adequate training and feel unable to cope with the demands of their job.
Ensuring that people’s skills and abilities are matched to their job role and that the work is achievable within the provided work hours will help reduce stress. A common stressor is a lack of time to complete too much work, so reducing this pressure will help.
Simple ways to achieve stress relief in the workplace
Insist that employees take regular breaks. Many workplaces have a culture that sees employees failing to take a proper lunch break and instead eating while still at their desks. Taking a break will reduce stress and increase productivity.
Hold regular meetings with employees so that they can voice any concerns and address them in the meeting.
Give employees some control over their job. Flexible working hours and changes to the way that they approach work may offer a simple solution to stress.
Encourage physical movement in the workplace. If your workplace is an office, inactivity and being sat at a desk will do nothing for the physical or mental health of employees. Promoting walking meetings may help. Instead of holding meetings in the office, talking while walking around the building or better still getting outside will help reduce stress and increase activity levels.
Be aware of your employees. Is there any bullying under the guise of banter going on? Is the general workplace culture collaborative and respectful or is it a more challenging environment? Workplace bullying is a major cause of workplace stress across all sectors from the Houses of Parliament to the average restaurant kitchen, so it is important for managers to act on complaints and also not to become part of the problem.
Learn how to manage stress
Whether you are an employer or a manager or you simply want to find out more about how to manage stress, a training course will help you deal with this common issue.
Understanding Stress is a short course that teaches you all about stress and provides coping strategies on how to manage it. Ideal for anyone who suffers from stress or is concerned about a colleague or employee’s health, this short course is an invaluable way of understanding stress and how to avoid it.
How to deal with an employee or team member who may be experiencing stress
According to ACAS (the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service) you should encourage an open proactive workplace so that if any employees are becoming unwell they can voice their concerns. The manager should take the following actions:
- Move the conversation to a private space, where they will not be disturbed (if not already somewhere appropriate).
- Thank the team member for coming to them and for letting them know.
- Be patient and allow them as much time as they need to talk about it.
- Remain focused on what they say.
- Be open minded.
- Try to identify what the cause is.
- Think about potential solutions.
If the cause of stress relates to their relationship with their manager, or other team members, it may be beneficial to involve Human Resources, if the organisation has one, or a more senior manager and allow the team member to have a companion (such as a work colleague or trade union representative) at any meetings.
What are the work-related stress rights?
Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from workplace stress but the law can be confusing as it is made up from a wide range of regulations.
- Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 – This legalisation places a general duty upon employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees.
- The Working Time Regulations Act 1998 – Many people suffering from stress also work long hours and shift work. In the catering/hospitality industry, for example, it is not unusual to work 70-hour weeks and more. This is allowed by law if the employee agrees to signing an opt-out clause, agreeing for their rights to be wavered.
The Working Time Regulations Act sets out basic rules including:
– 8 hours maximum for night shifts.
– A day off every week.
– Minimum 11 hours rest between work shifts.
– Paid annual leave.
– 20 minutes rest break for every 6 hours worked.
– Every employee has the legal right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment.
- Equality Act 2010 – It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure the workplace is safe and free from discrimination, harassment and intimidation. Failing to do so can cause unlawful and unfair employment practices, which can result in a discrimination claim.
How to manage absent staff who are off work with work-related stress
If an employee is off work for less than seven days, they are allowed to “self-certificate” which means that you have to take their word for the fact that they are too unwell to come to work. You may accept:
- Self-certification verbally or by letter.
- Form SC2 for self-certification.
- Your organisation’s own similar form.
If the absence is for over seven days, you should request what is usually referred to as a doctor’s certificate but is called a statement of fitness for work. The seven days should include weekends even if your employee does not usually work on these days. This fit note will either recommend that the person is not fit for work or it will give recommendations in the form of advisory measures. If the person returns to work, you must carry out these advisory measures otherwise the employee should be considered as unfit for work.
Employers should be understanding if there’s a delay in getting a fit note. Employees might have difficulty getting a doctor’s appointment.
Statutory sick pay
By law, employers must pay statutory sick pay (SSP) to employees and workers when they meet the eligibility criteria. An employee or worker is eligible for statutory sick pay if they:
- Have been off sick for at least four ‘qualifying days’ in a row – these are days when they’re usually required to work.
- Earn on average at least £123 a week, before tax (this figure is correct as of tax year 2022/23).
- Have told their employer they’re sick within any deadline the employer has set or within seven days.
Agency, casual and zero-hours workers are also entitled to statutory sick pay if they meet the eligibility criteria.
Statutory sick pay (SSP) can be paid for up to 28 weeks. An employer does not have to pay statutory sick pay for the first three qualifying days of sickness absence. These three days are called ‘waiting days’.
Statutory sick pay is the minimum amount employers must pay. Some employers might pay more. If they do, this must be written in the contract or workplace policy.
It should also say in the contract or the organisation’s policy whether the first three days of sickness absence are paid or unpaid.
How to handle employees off with work-related stress
You should stay in touch with the employee throughout their absence especially if this is likely to be long term; with people who suffer from stress, it often is very lengthy. You should update the person on their position, whether or not you have made changes to their workplace duties, any changes to sick pay or any promotion opportunities that may arise in the future.
In short, you must keep them in the loop so that when they do return to work, they are ready to resume their duties.
Other topics to discuss in these sickness absence meetings include:
- Your understanding of their illness and the reason for their absence.
- How long the absence is likely to continue.
- The possibility of implementing any changes in order to enable the employee to come back to work.
- The employee’s job security. You may be able to dismiss an employee on sick leave but this must be carried out reasonably and fairly. You must tell your employee if you are considering terminating their contract.
- The time and date of the next sickness absence meeting.
Once you have a better idea of how long your employee is likely to be away from work, you can take appropriate action such as hiring temporary cover or dividing the work between existing team members. Dividing the work can be problematic in the case of a prolonged absence because it could cause the remaining team members to become overloaded and in turn go off sick with stress.
Return to work interview
The return to work interview offers an opportunity to welcome the employee back to work. It helps you evaluate whether they are well enough to return to normal duties and it gives you a chance to highlight their importance to your business.
The return to work interview is a good place to bring your employee up to speed with any changes in the organisation or their job role. It is also a good opportunity to discuss the sick note and whether you need to make changes to your employee’s role in order to prevent further absence.
When the employee has been absent because of workplace stress, you should try and understand the triggers and try to make appropriate changes within your organisation if necessary.
After all, if your employee is one of a team doing the same job, for example, could it be the case that this employee is like the canary in the coal mine and that you are likely to have more stress-related staff absences in the future?
Alternatively, could it be that your staff member is working in a role to which they are unsuited, such as on a public desk where verbal abuse and criticism is commonplace?
The return to work interview will help you understand why the staff member has been absent. It also gives you the opportunity to explain that continuing absence may lead to job loss and to outline what is expected of your employee in the future.
It is important to outline and clarify that there may be job loss consequences if time off through stress is likely to be a regular occurrence. At the same time, it is important for the manager to act on recommendations to reduce workplace stress so that productivity is not disrupted by continuously changing staff members and sick leave.
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Some stress in the average working day can keep us interested and focused on our work, with some professions being far more stressful than others. After all, if you work in a challenging environment such as the police force or on a public counter where customer complaints are usual, stress really is part of the job and there is no escaping it.
The problems mainly arise when other pressures are piled on top of the general workload, such as lack of time or funding. Added pressures of deadlines, inadequate training, lack of downtime, long hours and money worries can add to the problem.
According to statistics, work-related stress and mental illness now account for over half of work absences. This means a massive knock on productivity as well as a disastrous impact on many people’s lives. Many employers are paying sick leave for absent staff members, putting an added strain on finances and on staff levels, thus only adding to the problem.
According to the HSE, employers must take action and start taking workplace stress seriously.
Speaking in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, a spokesman for the HSE said:
Learning about stress and how to make the workplace a calmer environment where people can do their work without becoming overwhelmed by the pressure is the only way we can improve the workplace.