How much of a problem is stress in today’s workplace? HR professionals can tell you easily enough – a big one.
Here’s a simple demonstration: Tap the word “Stress” into Google and you’ll get around 1.3 billion results. That’s a lot for one little word, isn’t it? Change your search to “workplace stress” and the results aren’t that different with just over 1 billion hits.
We then changed our search for some current newsroom favourites – President Trump and Brexit – these raised only 891 million and 377 million results respectively.
Given it’s such a talking point, why isn’t workplace stress given more focus? Shouldn’t it be headline news?
Costing Great Britain over £5billion a year, it’s a real danger to our physical and mental health, resulting in chronic health conditions and in extreme cases death.
Workplace stress affects us differently depending on our personality type, domestic situation and physical and emotional health. It’s complex and can even become an addictive behaviour for super-achievers.
“Every employer has a duty to look after their staff,” explains Cathy Richardson, an HR consultant and yoga practitioner. “It just makes sense. You get better performance, better retention, less cost on long term sick leave and medical insurance, and avoid the risk of stress-related tribunals”.
Are HR Professionals responsible for managing workplace stress levels?
Alison Charles, a wellbeing consultant, believes workplace stress goes beyond being something that HR manage: “the key is to ensure that wellbeing is built into the business strategy at the highest level. Wellbeing begins in the boardroom. HR can help implement the strategy, but it needs buy-in at the top.”
And as a legal obligation, stress management needs the same level of focus as other corporate responsibilities. For this reason, it should stand on the same footing as anti-money laundering, anti-competitive behaviours and racial discrimination to give just a few examples.
“Many workplace wellbeing strategies are just given lip-service”, states Cathy. “Directors need to give the vehicle for workplace wellbeing as well as the permission”.
Shannon, a marketing director at a communications company illustrates an all-too-common situation;
“I was reviewing my expenses with my manager when he questioned my gym membership. Thanks to work I hadn’t had the chance to go for a few months and joked that it was probably a wasted expense. He agreed and told me to cancel the membership. I’m pretty sure he should have been encouraging me to make more of it”.
It’s something that Alison agrees with: “ultimately top management need to model the behaviours needed to facilitate a less stressful culture” she says.
How HR professionals can help build a stress-resistant culture
“Embedding stress management into your organisation’s culture may feel stilted initially but will eventually make HR’s job easier” continues Alison.
She goes on to recommend small changes that help open up the dialogue around stress management. It can be as simple as recommending all team meetings start with a chat about how you’re feeling and coping with the current workload.
Not all workplace stress is a result of overwork. Bullying, harassment and discrimination result in stress that even the victim may not feel able to clearly express. And struggling to fit domestic or caring duties into a working week can mean some employees feel overwhelmed at their responsibilities and are unable to focus on their work.
Issues such as these should be straightforward to manage – a zero tolerance approach to discrimination and harassment makes it clear that your organisation is a safe place and supports those feeling victimised. Likewise, a workable flexible working policy helps those for whom family support, long distance travel or ongoing medical treatment is a consideration.
HR professionals can push for more dramatic policies if supported by the wider organisation
A ban on lunching at your desk? It may sound ridiculous but is based on science. If employees are unable to graze or feast at their desks they need to move away from their chairs. The results? More movement, more socialisation, less snacking, a healthier workforce. Not to mention fewer crumbs.
And what about the trend for a ban on after-work emails?
Van Meter, a US-based business trialled an internal email ban on weekends and after 17:00 and before 7:00 on weekdays. Echoing comments made by others, Lura McBride the COO is quoted as saying “you can tell people you want them to have a work-life balance, but unless you are bringing in some hard-and-fast strategies to tackle this then “you are just putting lip service to it””.
Considering that French law now gives workers the “right to disconnect” from emails and devices when they leave the office, is the recognition of the damage our “always on” culture starting to sink in? After all, giving employees the opportunity to truly switch-off when they leave the office will result in better performance and a healthier workforce.
When we stop and relax, our bodies repair themselves; we break the behaviour pattern that continual work-related stress creates.
HR professionals can influence a healthier approach
“One of the bigger issues with workplace stress is that it often goes unnoticed because the staff just aren’t trained in recognising it or see it as ‘not my job’”, says Martine Robins, owner of The HR Dept, Woking.
“When it does become evident, many people shy away from engaging and dealing with stress in others because they don’t feel qualified to deal with it.”
Alison elaborates; “people get promoted when they’re good at their job. But managerial skills need to be developed and these new managers need support”.
A good manager will get to know someone’s natural personality state and so will notice when stress starts to affect their behaviour. Naturally outgoing people becoming more introverted, people fixating on small details and missing the bigger picture, angry outbursts at colleagues – all signs that stress is making its mark. And physical health should be watched closely.
“Where the mind goes the body follows” states Cathy. She goes on to say that “signs that stress is starting to impair someone’s physical health include digestive problems, a constant cold, back and shoulder pain. Would you believe that 90% of back pain is related to tension?”
Leaving stress to fix itself is a dangerous situation says Martine; “the assumption is made that the employee is sorting it out themselves, but actually the problem becomes more entrenched and a delay in intervention does not help”.
Support can be workplace-led, such as offering a flexible working pattern or a new role or could be to encourage the employee to seek medical advice. The key is to act as soon as the manager notices changes in behaviour.
There are several ways HR professionals can help staff recognise and respond to stress – both within themselves and in others.
As a wellbeing consultant, Alison runs programmes that help managers recognise and respond to the signs of stress in their team as well as staff resilience training sessions.
“Helping people understand how their physical, emotional and mental health is linked, and what stress does to the body is the key” she says, “when people understand their personality type and the way in which stress affects them, then they can start to build up their personal resilience and learn how to deal with high levels of stress.”
Outside of working with a wellbeing consultant, there are many reputable online sources that can help you and your team better understand and manage stress. The mental health charity Mind offers a range of practical and easily accessible courses. With online courses related to mental health at work and e-learning for managers, you can incorporate a better awareness of stress and other mental health issues into your employees’ mindset.
And with initiatives such as the International Stress Conference, held in London later this year and workshops like “Excelling Under Pressure” on offer, there are many opportunities for HR professionals and employees to increase their understanding of workplace stress and how to manage it.
HR Professionals can’t manage workplace stress alone
Managing workplace stress is everyone’s responsibility. HR professionals can activate board-level strategies and encourage an open dialogue about stress and pressure, but workplace culture is the ultimate tool for a better and healthier workplace.
We found so many helpful resources to help you and your employees better deal with stress while working on this article.
Here are our three favourites:
https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/ – Mind state that works is the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives. They have an entire section dedicated to helping improve workplace mental wellbeing.
https://isma.org.uk/events – a credible source of information related to workplace stress. Their directory of stress management practitioners is a useful link.
http://www.stress.org.uk/ – full of practical, well-explained advice. The corporate stress test and 10 Step Stress Solution are particularly useful.
Thank you to our contributors for this article 🙌
As an HR professional, you can help your team develop their skills and learning and identify ways to build their resilience with well-guided career conversations. Erica Sosna’s Career Matters programme provides a clear framework to help you embed this into your organisation.