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Stress in employment

Updated on December 2, 2014

How to identify the warning signs of stress – for employers

Stress Warning Signs: you may notice increased disputes amongst staff, greater sickness levels, performance issues, customer complaints and a general malaise. This may all have roots in workers being stressed and you will need to act to improve matters as ignoring it won’t make it go away and in fact is likely to have an adverse effect on your business.

But as a manager you need to look out for other signs in the workforce (and they may be manifest in your manager-colleagues too!) Swift and appropriate action will stop it escalating. The signs will be different according to situations but will largely fall into four areas, although someone may exhibit various signs at different times.

Aggressive behaviour – easy to spot and can range from passive aggression to shouting or even physical violence. More subtle is the rumour-monger, undermining others, spreading malicious gossip, histrionics

Performance problems – can range from memory loss, uncharacteristic mistakes, poor time management and consequential long hours, an inability to function

Isolation or detachment (the opposite to engagement) – lack of interest in the work or colleagues, negative communication or none at all, absenteeism, general appearance of debility

Emotional displays – argumentative, crying, over reaction, defensive responses/ blaming others, unreasonably critical of others.

Also watch out for negative talk and negative body language, avoidance of other people.

So you’ve identified a problem – what now? Most importantly, do not ignore it. Talk to people, be empathetic but discourage whining; do a risk assessment to identify problem areas and encourage openness and team work. Consider if the level of work load for people is fair and reasonable: how else could work be organised? But be wary of passing on problem work to others without assessing if they are in a position to handle it. It is very helpful to offer a support network such as an Employment Assistance Programme or be able to signpost people to counselling service or to your Occupational Health provider for proper diagnosis and help where possible. Perhaps they will be open to seeing their doctor?

But be wary of interfering in personal problems. A person may be able to cope with pressure at work but become very stressed when things at home aren’t going well. Help them to find help, avoid offering any off the cuff remarks or amateur suggestions, even when these are well meant. Often being a good listener can help – and that does mean giving your full and genuine attention to your employee (no sneaking a peek at your mobile phone when they are telling you about their troubles) but equally be able to steer the conversation and close it positively when appropriate to do so. Of course it will be confidential won’t it? You will destroy all trust from your employees if you repeat revelations to others, unless you are give permission to do so. However, if this becomes burdensome to your own stress levels, consider talking it over in an anonymous fashion with a professional counsellor or HR.


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