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Tackle employee stress

Updated on December 2, 2014

Do you see stress as the new “back-ache”, an excuse for your employees to throw a sickie?

Well for many people, stress is a very real experience and the difficulty is that people cope differently, making it hard to define. But the UK Health and Safety Executive describe it as “an adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them”. A job may be stressful for one person, but an exciting challenge for another person.

So, why should an employer worry about it? When pressures become too much, anyone can feel overwhelmed and suffer excessive stress leading to inability to cope, lowered productivity and a potential for legal action in extreme cases.

That doesn’t mean that as an employer we need to wrap people up in cotton wool, neither can we ignore it. UK and US employers have a legal duty of care to ensure that employees are not harmed by workplace stress. If that isn’t a good enough reason, remember it can have an effect upon productivity and the bottom line. So what actions are reasonable for employers to undertake?

Firstly, assess the extent to which your employees are under stress in the workplace. (Remember stress is not the same as pressure. We need pressure to motivate us but when it becomes excessive, it leads to stress and even burnout). Classically this can be done by identifying stress related illnesses from your absence data. However, this may not identify all those who suffer stress (migraine for example could be the result of stress or perhaps a food allergy) or may come into work but be ineffective. Also it is a reactive measure and you need to consider how it can be averted in the first place. Think about conducting a stress audit questionnaire, use a forum group or generally ask people at staff meetings, as suits your particular business and culture.

Having assessed your results, you will need to take action, particularly if you have discussed this with employees as there may be raised expectations; but in any case taking action will lead to improved employee engagement. Concern with employee well-being will reap rewards for the organisation, e.g. increase in Positive Engagement with its positive effect on productivity, and could even negate costly court cases brought by disgruntled employees. Any assessment needs to be a repeated exercise and one where employees are included (and their representatives if you have a negotiating body) who need to feel able to give feedback freely. Treating people as adults will encourage involvement and may surprise you when they come up with solutions that you may not have anticipated.

Some remedies to consider include:

  • · Providing an Employee Assistance Programme. This is an independent, confidential service accessed by employees by telephone and/or internet and can offer help for personal problems such as debt, legal signposting, counselling. It is essential that the service is confidential to encourage uptake
  • · Work-life balance. Look at how you conduct your business. Are there areas where you could enable people to work flexibly rather than being enslaved to a work station for umpteen hours a day? Or could boring or burdensome tasks be rotated with several people? Be open-minded and ask what people would like to experience.
  • · Take a serious look at excessive hours and work load. Think about the blessing/curse of technology which we can access constantly: it merges our working life into our leisure and family time thus exacerbating where people feel the burden of overwork. How can you reduce that for your business?
  • · Look at job roles and work methods. Are they realistic, are they relevant and does the list of tasks actually enable productivity? Do you need to organise work flow differently?
  • · Think about how you communicate with your workforce: is this a two-way communication or only a top-down approach? How much autonomy can you give your employees and how much control can they have over their working lives?
  • · Communicate: this isn’t just about you giving a full message but it also means listening properly to your staff

By gaining understanding of the major stress factors in your business, remaining open-minded and involving your employees, it will help you to identify suitable action and priorities.

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