Stress is bad for you, your family and business. Which means that it is equally bad for your employees and colleagues. Fortunately, today there is less stigma and much more understanding about the causes and remedies for stress-related issues at work, in the community and at home, as Jon Herbert explains.
Stress may have once been one of the largest ignored elephants in the workplace. Not anymore. Events planned across the UK on 4 November as part of the 17th National Stress Awareness Day (NSAD 2015) have been designed to highlight one of the most damaging aspects of modern life.
The mental and physical symptoms of stress are many and varied, but very often include feelings of anger, depression or anxiety. This can result in behaviour changes, food cravings or a loss of appetite, frequent crying bouts, mental and physical difficulties in sleeping, tiredness and an inability to concentrate. Other physical symptoms can include chest pains, constipation or diarrhoea, dizziness, fainting spells, nervous twitches, pins and needles, restlessness, sweating, decreased libido, breathlessness and muscular aches.
Organised by the International Stress Management Association, NSAD 2015 is part of a wider campaign that encourages employees and individuals to add this far-reaching health topic to their business and personal agendas.
Supporting material includes a video explaining the case for employee wellbeing, posters, guides, PowerPoint Slides, website content, an official partnership and social media inclusion.
As a result, private sector, NHS, government, university and safety body employers, staff and managers will take part in a wide range of activities hammering home the importance of eliminating destructive working life-related stress.
This year’s theme of “Employee Wellbeing as a Worthwhile Investment in Your Business” has been chosen to not only show the way an which employee wellbeing and stress management programmes can be run, but also the increases in performance and productivity that they can bring.
It is important to differentiate between positive stress — the “buzz” that often accompanies stimulating work — and negative stress.
Bad work-related stress is often defined as the harmful physical or psychological reaction that occurs when demands at work exceed our ability to cope. This can be compounded by other employment problems, such as feeling inadequate, or having to cope with poor working conditions.
There is an increasing recognition too of unacceptable bullying, aggressive attitudes, a fear of violence, or harassment and prejudice that can be manifest in many different ways.
A culture of long working hours, poor communication in both large and small organisations, plus a shortage of resources because of economic pressures, can add to the toxic mix.
One of the major messages coming out of stress surveys and research is that rather than being an illness with easily-identifiable causes, stress is better viewed as a process covering many overlapping areas that can be tackled systematically to everyone’s benefit.
Another key message is that while everybody can potentially be affected by stress and can play a key part in its alleviation, employers have specific duties under health and safety law to assess and take measures to control risks from work-related stress.
As an employer, you also have a duty under common law to take reasonable care in ensuring the health and safety of your employees. If a member of your staff suffers from stress related ill-health and a court decides that you could have taken steps to prevent it, you may be found negligent. There is no upper limit to the compensation an employee can claim.
Dismissing a staff member due to work-related stress runs the risk of an employment tribunal concluding unfair dismissal unless the employer can show that he or she acted reasonably. ACAS has examined in depth how employers can help to take the stress load off of employees and is a good source of practical advice in this situation.
Crunching the numbers
The UK’s stress-related costs are high. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show stress in Great Britain to be the second most commonly self-reported work-related illness condition. Some 500,000 workers experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill.
On average, each person who suffered from work-related stress took an estimated 24 days off in 2011–2012, which means some 10.4 million working days were lost in that period due to stress, depression or anxiety.
In addition, up to 5 million people across Britain feel “very” or “extremely” stressed by their work. One estimate of the total cost to society is almost £4 billion every year.
The ACAS advisory booklet Stress at Work suggests how good employment relations can respond to causes of stress identified by the HSE. Details of standards, and advice on how to achieve them, are also available on the HSE website.
The six main causes of stress are identified as:
- too many demands
- lack of control
- lack of support
- problem relationships
To offset pressures that make employees feel overloaded and unable to cope, ACAS says employers must make sure staff understand what they are being asked to do and how to do it. More training may be needed; flexible working hours can also help.
Employees should be consulted and involved in the way in which their work is carried out, it is suggested. Another important management responsibility is to build effective teams capable of carrying out allotted tasks. Reviewing performance and identifying strengths, weaknesses, plus where additional resources may be needed, is also vital.
Sickness and absenteeism is a common symptom of employees not only feeling unduly under pressure but also unable to discuss problems and troubles with their line managers. Companies must build into their procedures opportunities for workers to voice issues that are causing them stress — an activity that can in itself be therapeutic. During times of change, it is advisable to keep everyone fully informed so that they do not feel alienated.
A failure to build sound relationships based on good behaviour and trust can lead to a downward spiral of discipline problems, grievances and bullying. The remedy is to have clear procedures in place to manage misconduct and poor performance, plus grievance issues raised by employees. Nipping bullying and harassment in the bud tends to send a very positive message that this will not be tolerated.
So that staff members are fully-aware of what is — and is not — expected of them in the first instance, it is important to create realistic expectations and reduce levels of misunderstanding and anxiety. Thorough induction sessions delivered against a checklist are useful. These can be followed up by written statements to dispel any ambiguity now and in the future. Not only should employees have very clear job descriptions, it is important to maintain a close link between their individual objectives and wider company goals. This prevents feelings of isolation.
Change is almost always stressful. Making sure that everyone knows what is happening ahead of time and the direction of travel pays dividends. Talking to everyone individually wherever possible and requesting their input can make all the difference. People like to be asked for their views. Being part of any problem-solving process makes individuals feel valued.
Another factor that increases stress is any spill-over of personal and home life issues. These can be exacerbated by long working hours, poor shift patterns, unsocial and inflexible hours and excessive time spent travelling.
Pays, benefits and the financial rewards associated with work are important in terms of lifestyle. Although financial rewards may not be a prime motivator, they can become a corrosive factor where other negative aspects of the job exist.
Poor physical working conditions and a fears of a dead-end job can be extremely destructive. Where individuals derive little satisfaction from their work, compounded by a feel that things are unlikely to change in the next 5 to 10 years, trouble is almost certain to be brewing.
No one likes dull, repetitive, badly designed work.
The 17th National Stress Awareness Day could be an ideal opportunity to make sure they do not have to suffer it.
Published by Croner-i on 4 November 2015