What can I do about my employees’ stress levels?

Perhaps you think due to the nature of what your employees do, a bit of stress is inevitable or even a good thing? You may be right, but it’s worth taking some time to consider whether stress is an issue in your business and addressing it if so, because the impact of problem-stress on your business could be higher than you think.

What is stress?

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) formal definition of work-related stress is:

“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”

Stress is a state rather than an illness and there’s certainly an argument that a bit of pressure can be a good thing. However, there’s a difference between pressure and stress. Stress occurs when this pressure becomes excessive and if stress becomes excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may follow.

How much of a problem is it really?

According to HSE statistics, in 2017-2018 work-related stress, depression and anxiety cost employers 15.4 million days absence. That’s work-related stress alone, therefore doesn’t even include absence for stress/anxiety or depression unrelated to work. Even for very small businesses, those figures mean stress is something you should be taking seriously and addressing, regardless of any less-than-sympathetic responses that stress-related absence may elicit.

What does it cost businesses?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) current average estimated cost per employee per year of sickness absence is more than £600 and, as stress is one of the leading single causes, a large portion of that average cost can be attributed directly to stress. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) put the annual cost for UK employers of stress-related absence as between £30 billion and £42 billion, while the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health has put the cost per employee per year of stress (including absence, lost productivity and increased staff turnover) at £1,035.

But as well as sickness absence cost, the risk of a legal claim for stress raises the question of compensation levels, which can easily run into the hundreds of thousands in serious cases where an employee has a breakdown, suffers psychiatric damage and in some cases doesn’t work again.

What are the legal risks?

Employers who fail to deal with stress are at risk of the following claims:

  • Negligence
  • Breach of implied terms in a contract
  • Disability Discrimination
  • Constructive Dismissal
  • Statutory Duties under Health and Safety legislation

Most of those claims are not under the jurisdiction of an employment tribunal and as such are not subject to caps on compensation as some tribunal claims are.

Any other reasons for dealing with it?

As well as avoiding all the doom and gloom mentioned above, dealing with stress can have some real positive effects. People feel more motivated and committed to their work and perform better. Relationships at work are better, as are retention rates and absence rates.

All employers need to recognise that stress is an issue that isn’t going to go away. Many managers have little tolerance for stress in their employees and there is often a perception that stress is a sign of weakness or not a “real’ reason for sickness absence. But the simple facts are that stress is costing you money and time and it makes business sense to address it but how do you do that?

How do I actually know if there is a problem with stress in my business?

Absence rates

Make sure you are keeping good absence records, including number of days lost and causes. Sometimes you might have someone off specifically with stress or work-related stress, in which case obviously it’s easy to identify that’s an issue.

But also consider whether absence rates overall are higher than you’d perhaps expect. Are there lots of Monday absences? Absences with vague reasons given? It might be that work-related stress factors are at least partially at play here as well.

Increased turnover

Do you measure staff turnover? If you don’t specifically measure it, you can consider whether actually more staff are leaving your business than you are happy about. Why might that be? Sometimes staff give reasons they are leaving and if these relate to management style, workload or relationships at work, then that’s a clear indicator you might have a stress problem.

But if no reasons are given and you’re not sure why people are leaving, perhaps consider some kind of exit interviews or other ways of seeking feedback from leavers. They may or may not feel able to be honest, (and if not, that’s a problem in itself!) but it might at least give you some indication to go on.

Performance changes

If there is a stress problem, you may notice a reduction in productivity levels or standards of performance might decline or become erratic. Are deadlines being missed, work left incomplete or customer complaints and concerns increasing? Are staff raising concerns about workload or task-related problems? All of this could indicate there is a stress problem in your business.

Behavioural changes

Employees might demonstrate loss of concentration, motivation or commitment. You might find them less willing to “go the extra mile’ at key busy times. Lateness may increase; employees may become irritable, over-sensitive, withdrawn or demonstrate mood swings or out-of-character behaviour.

You may notice more disputes and disaffection within a team and an increase in complaints or grievances.

Of course all of the above possible indicators of stress are problems in themselves, and worth investigating and addressing. There may be unrelated causes and different solutions, so keeping an eye on all this stuff is a key part of good management anyway and should help your business regardless of whether stress is a factor. But if you’re noticing trends in these areas and/or have had staff off with stress or related symptoms, it may be that stress is a specific problem and it’s time to take steps to address it.

If you identify that an individual or group is suffering with stress, you know you need to address it, to stop any negative impact it’s having and avoid the problem becoming worse. So what should you do about it? Here are 10 key steps you can take to address a stress problem:

1. Find root causes

First you need to do what you can to find out the root cause of the stress, and make adjustments where at all possible. Root causes may be related to workload, relationships at work, lack of support, poor management or organisational change. Addressing your specific stress problem means identifying what specifically is causing it, rather than simply taking the most common causes and looking at those.

You can find out the root cause through asking staff, either specific employees who you identify are suffering from work-related stress on an individual basis or by asking staff more widely about the key factors that are or may be causing stress in their team.

2. Take notice

Reassure staff that you are listening to their concerns and taking the problem seriously. Make sure they feel involved and listened to and confident that you are taking steps to help resolve the problems and support them.

3. Discourage “eye rolling”

There is frequently a problem with “eye-rolling” when an employee is identified as suffering from stress or is absent with stress. Either managers or other staff can be very disparaging or intolerant and impatient. Of course whatever steps you take to deal with the problem, if the team are unsupportive or dismissive of the problem, it is less likely to go away.

Lead by example in taking it seriously and make sure staff as a whole understand that suffering with stress is not a sign of weakness, it can be caused or exacerbated by a number of factors and is something that can happen to everyone.

4. Encourage seeking help

If a staff member highlights they are suffering from stress symptoms, encourage them to seek help from elsewhere, usually from their GP as a first point of call.

If the stress is mainly work-related, there might be limited other external options you can point them to, but things like online tools for stress reduction and meditation apps can also be good, in combination with workplace steps to address the problem.

5. Use occupational health

A good occupational health specialist can provide you with advice on adjustments you can make to address stress-related health problems. This would usually be in the form of a referral for a specific individual and just as they might advise adjustments to support an employee suffering from physical ill-health. The same would be true of mental ill-health, including work-related stress.

6. Provide counselling

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP*) don’t have to be too costly and can involve a helpline with telephone counselling available for staff. You may even have something already through insurance you have, so check, and if so, make sure details are available to staff; also that they are encouraged to use it, for work-related and any other problems they may have. (*An EAP is an employer funded benefit that offers employees confidential counselling and advice on a wide range of work and personal issues).

7. Change management style

Management style is highly likely to at least partially be the problem, so take steps to address this as quickly as possible. That might involve coaching or training for managers or implementing changes in how things operate in your business.

Look at implementing a bit more structure in performance management, increasing the frequency of line manager one-to-ones or taking steps as a business owner to make sure you are holding your managers accountable for managing staff in a supportive way.

8. Improve relationships

Think about how you can improve relationships at work. It could be a specific team-building event (although the thought of those can fill people with horror!) or just some social time; fostering a more relaxed atmosphere and encouraging collaboration. If you organise some social events, make these as inclusive as possible, considering factors like childcare issues/other personal commitments.

If there is a specific problem with relationships in a team, some external mediation can really work wonders. A trained experienced mediator will know how to unpick problems and facilitate solutions to prevent recurrence.

9. Adjust workload

A heavy workload is the most common specific cause of work-related stress. Are you expecting too much of your staff? In many small businesses simply recruiting additional staff isn’t really an option due to tight budgets, but if workloads are too high you can consider alternative approaches to make them more manageable.

Are there things staff are doing that really actually aren’t necessary at all? Eliminate all tasks that don’t actually add value. It would be very unusual if there are none of these and you can find out what they are by asking staff.

Are tasks being completed as efficiently as possible? Again you can ask staff this, but there are bound to be some tasks being completed in your business that are involving duplication or inefficiency. Addressing those can reduce workloads without costing money.

Is there technology you can use to reduce workload? This might involve more of a financial investment obviously, but may be worth looking at even; if it’s only as a longer-term aim than an immediate solution.

10. Improve job design

A high degree of control over their work can be a key factor in reducing stress, so look at how jobs are designed in your team. Can adjustments be made so that employees have a bit more control over what they are doing, more decision-making capacity within their role? This isn’t always possible but there are usually at least minor adjustments you can make to processes and procedures or task allocation to increase employees’ sense of control and independence a little.

A combination of quickly addressing specific issues identified and also improving the wider common factors should help reduce your stress problem significantly and hopefully will involve systemic changes that will contribute to preventing stress problems in the future.

Sue Pardy
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Sue Pardy

Sue Pardy, a highly competent and knowledgeable HR consultant with over 20 years’ experience gained in both public and private sectors across a wide range of industries including retail, insurance, financial services, professional services, education, charities and SMEs. Sue is a qualified Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and her advice has assisted managers, directors and owners in dealing with many complex employee relations issues such as disciplinary & grievances, absence, capability and performance issues.