Stress is a major cause of sickness absence in the workplace costing over £5 billion a year in Great Britain. In 2017/18, 595,000 workers in the UK reported having work-related stress, depression or anxiety, with £15.4 million working days lost attributed to one of these conditions. This accounts for over half (57%) of all working days lost due to ill health (statistics available from the Health and Safety Executive -HSE).
Stress can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s physical and psychological health and wellbeing. It can also adversely impact the employer in terms of; recruitment and retention, absence levels, accident rates, performance and productivity and employee engagement/morale. In addition if unaddressed it could lead to damage to the employer’s brand and reputation and pose a risk of litigation claims.
What can employers do to reduce stress in the workplace?
Employers should approach stress management proactively, as a health and safety risk, focusing on prevention and early intervention, rather than reacting to a problem as and when it arises.
- Carry out a risk assessment and develop an action plan
Organisations have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees, which includes stress management. Employers need to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for work-related stress, taking action to tackle any problems highlighted through the assessment.
The HSE website has lots of free and user-friendly resources available to assist employers with conducting a stress risk assessment and developing an action plan, such as ‘The Management Standards’ toolkit. The application of these ‘Standards’ will demonstrate that the business has complied with its legal obligations.
- Be aware of the signs of stress
Stress is not an illness but can make an individual ill. Recognising potential signs of stress can help employers to take steps to manage stress in the workplace. Symptoms of stress may include; changes in performance levels, a sudden lack of focus or interest in work tasks, an increase in sickness absence or lateness, low mood or withdrawal, tiredness and irritability, loss of appetite or an increased use of stimulants such as caffeine, smoking or alcohol.
- The role of line managers
Line managers play a critical role in preventing and managing workplace stress due to their close working relationship with their team members.
What can managers do to alleviate stress in the workplace?
- Know your team and be approachable – Consider how often you check in with individuals, formally or informally and actively listen to what they have to say.
- Lead by example – If you are stressed, working long hours and feeling under pressure consider the impact this may be having on your management style, team and their performance.
- Understand individual team member’s needs and preferred ways of working – Employees are individuals, one management style does not necessarily fit all.
- Consider, review and monitor your team’s workload – 44% of workers attributed their stress, depression and anxiety related absences due to their workload (HSE). This is particularly pertinent during peak business periods or when understaffed.
- Change management – in periods of organisational change, whether minor or major, regular communication and involvement with your team can help to alleviate uncertainty and potential stress.
- Know what support you can offer individuals – do employees have access to an Employee Assistance Scheme, Occupational Health or other health scheme? Can you offer temporary adjustments to work duties or hours?
- Pro-actively manage and address individual cases
If an employer becomes aware that an employee is suffering from stress the earlier the problem is addressed the less impact it is likely to have on the business. Sometimes the first awareness an employer will have is when an employee notifies them of their absence.
- Employers don’t have to wait until an employee submits a fit note or triggers long-term sick before they take action or communicate with the employee.
- Establish if the cause of absence is personal/home life or work-related by contacting the employee and asking them for further information.
- If the absence is work-related the sooner you can establish the cause the quicker you can take steps to address the issues preventing the employee from attending work.
- For work-related stress cases consider inviting the employee to attend a welfare meeting to discuss the cause of stress and any potential support you can offer. It is useful to issue them with a HSE Management Standards Indicator Questionnaire (available from the HSE website) to complete and bring to the meeting. This can help structure the discussion and get to the root cause of the problem. Explore any potential solutions and agree follow up actions. Document your discussions and follow these up in writing.
- For personal/home related stress cases, consider any support you may be able to offer the individual in the short term e.g. temporary adjustments to their duties or flexible working arrangements to sustain their attendance or access to any appropriate support services (e.g. Employee Assistance Schemes/Occupational Health).
Employers should consider the benefits of training their managers on how to spot the potential signs and triggers of stress and what do when managing stress cases.