In this article
It is thought that there are more than ten million lost workdays each year due to stress, a lot of which is likely to be caused by the workplace itself. However, whilst ten million is without doubt a high number, the actual number is thought to be much higher because many employees will not report a stress-related illness to take time off but will instead report a physical illness, such is the stigma that still surrounds mental health and mental illness.
Some employees may fear that if they show signs of stress or if they take time off due to stress or another related mental health problem that they will be thought less of by employees and colleagues and some may fear that they will lose their job if they disclose mental health difficulties.
Identifying signs that employees are experiencing stress
As some employees, therefore, may not be willing to discuss or admit to stress or related conditions, it is important that employers are aware of some of the signs that may indicate that an employee is mentally unwell and may be experiencing symptoms of stress.
These are not always easy to identify as some employees will go to great lengths to hide them from others, insisting that they are alright and trying to carry out their role to expected standards. However, eventually, untreated stress will take its toll on the employee and this can result in behaviours that employers should be able to identify.
Some of these can include any one or more of the following but it must be kept in mind by employers that the experience of stress is completely subjective, and whilst most people will experience one or more of the following signs of stress, some may not.
Employers would benefit from asking themselves questions about each of these aspects of behaviour:
- Changes in mood: Is the employee quieter than usual? Are they irritable or aggressive? Has the way they speak to colleagues changed? Are they less sociable?
- Deterioration in standard of work: Does the employee take more or less time on tasks? Do they seem distracted? Have they started to leave earlier and arrive later? Have others expressed concern about their standard of work? Do they no longer seem interested in tasks that they used to enjoy?
- Sickness absences: Is a pattern of absence starting to form? Is the individual giving reasons for sickness that don’t seem in line with their demeanour? Is the individual at risk of having a formal warning about their sickness absence record?
- Changes in eating habits: Has the individual lost weight or put weight on? Do they seem uninterested in joining others at break and lunch times? Do they now want to eat alone somewhere? Has the type of food they are eating changed?
- Changes in behaviour: Has the individual started to smoke? Do they report drinking more alcohol? Are they late to work? Has their appearance changed? Do they seem tired?
Identifying the cause of stress
It is important to know what the most like causes of workplace stress may be, bearing in mind that these will be different for everyone and that responses to causes of stress can vary from mild to severe, depending on the individual.
- The demands of the job, where individuals can become overwhelmed if they cannot cope with the type of work or the amount of work (or both) that they are expected to do as part of their role.
- The amount of control that the individual has over the work that they do. It is possible that they will perform less well if they have little or no say over how and when they complete their work.
- The amount of support that the individual has can significantly determine the amount of stress that they experience. Levels of sickness are thought to increase if individuals do not feel like they can openly discuss with managers anything that is causing them to feel stressed.
- Having poor relationships at work which are not built on trust and mutual respect can lead to problems with discipline, bullying, harassment and may mean that an employee becomes involved in a grievance claim, which can be a stressful experience.
- Not knowing how their role fits into an organisation can cause stress because individuals will be less aware of what is expected of them and they may feel less valued if they don’t know how their contribution supports the aims of the organisation.
- Any individual who experiences change at work can be affected negatively if the change is not managed correctly. Changes that are not explained or justified can lead to stress because of the insecurity and uncertainty that they bring.
Finding a solution to avoid stress developing
One of the best ways to avoid stress in the workplace is to create a workplace culture of openness where employees feel supported and comfortable in discussing any issues that they have, as this can prevent stress from developing and so avoid all of the stress-related issues that can come about, such as an increase in sickness absences and a deterioration in work performance.
It is important that the workplace is one where positive mental health is actively promoted and where it is taken as seriously as physical health. This enables employees to be open and honest about how they are feeling and what kinds of difficulties they may be having.
Furthermore, employees should be actively encouraged to understand the importance of their own well-being and what steps they can take to ensure that they remain physically and mentally well. Some organisations run training courses about this but, of course, the employee can take full responsibility for this and educate themselves about how they can best maintain their own well-being and so establish a good work-life balance where they are able to avoid stress where possible and manage it well where it may be unavoidable.
Taking action to reduce stress where it has developed
It is of great benefit to employers to reduce the levels of stress of their employees for all of the following reasons:
- Employees are happier at work.
- Employees’ physical health will be better, reducing sickness absences.
- There will likely be a reduction in workplace disputes.
- The organisation creates a positive culture, which makes it an attractive place to work and for potential future employees.
Also, the employer has a duty of care to make sure that its employees remain both mentally and physically well as well as a legal requirement to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all its employees. Employers are obliged to carry out work-related stress risk assessments and act on the findings from these on an ongoing basis.
If a risk assessment finds that there are areas where the organisation can improve how they are working with their employees to reduce levels of stress, then they should, at their earliest convenience, work together with their employees to identify and apply strategies that are both realistic and practical and which will help them to tackle the issues.
Action plans are likely to be based on the organisation’s policies and ways of working but they should include information relating to:
- What the problem is.
- How the problem was identified.
- What potential solutions are being proposed.
- What actions are being taken to ensure that solutions are achieved.
- By what dates actions will be achieved.
- How employees will be informed on the progress of the actions.
- When a review will be carried out to check if the actions have been successful.
Any form of review should be robust, ensuring that it is clear that actions have been carried out as well as carrying out an evaluation to determine what has worked well and what areas or actions may need further consideration. It may be the case that further action is taken and so the steps from the first action plan should be repeated.
Taking into account existing physical and mental health problems
When an employee already has a mental or physical health problem that has potential to impact how they carry out their role, this must be taken into account when reasonable adjustments are being planned.
For example, an employee may request that not only would they like to sit by the door as they experience anxiety and panic but that their desk be on the ground floor due to reduced mobility.
In order to meet their needs effectively, some employees may request from their employer that the way in which they carry out their work is more flexible, for example they may request:
- Reduced hours.
- Compressed hours.
- Some days working from home.
- Some days working from another remote location.
- Different start and end times to shifts or a normal working day.
- Use of unpaid leave for medical appointments.
- Equal time for breaks but taken more frequently for less time.
- Reallocation of some tasks, particularly those which are known triggers for stress.
Physical changes to a work environment
An employee’s work environment is crucial to their well-being; full-time employees will spend around 40 hours per week within it and so it must be a place where they feel safe and comfortable.
Employees can make a request to have their working environment changed so that it meets their mental health needs.
Examples of reasonable adjustments that could be made include:
- Minimising noise, e.g. putting up dividers or reducing the volume of telephones.
- Providing a quiet space for rest breaks away from the main working area.
- Offering a parking space away from the main parking area.
- Offering increased personal space.
- Moving a workstation, such as closer to a window or door.
Support with workload
One of the most common reasons for workplace stress and poor mental health is a workload that is in excess of an employee’s ability to manage it. Often employees feel obliged to take on more work for which they are often not paid because they believe that it will enable them to advance in their career without thought of the negative impact that it might have on their mental health.
Once a person starts to take on extra work, this can be difficult to refuse in the future as there may be an expectation that it will continue.
Once an employee becomes overwhelmed with an extra workload, even coming back to their original workload may be problematic, and so in order to maintain their mental well-being they may ask for a reasonable adjustment to be made in this area, which may include:
- Increased levels of supervision to ensure that they are coping well
- Support from someone else to enable them to prioritise their workload effectively/li>
- Enabling the employee to focus on one main task and delegate the rest
- Considering the possibility of job sharing.
- Some employees may find it beneficial to take regular rest breaks away from their work so that they do not find it to be too overwhelming. Some employers may insist that employees cannot have more time allocated to them for rest breaks but may agree that more frequent breaks can be taken for less time or less frequent breaks can be taken for more time.
- Most employers will usually, however, agree that someone who is prone to stress and those who live with acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) mental health problems should be able to take time out from their work more often so that their morale and productivity are not negatively affected.
It is important to look after the mental health and well-being of your employees, this in turn will reduce work-related stress and ensure that staff moral in the workplace is high.