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Managing stress generally in a workplace


In our post yesterday, we looked at stress and the causes of excessive stress at work. Today we look at how employers can approach stress at work to improve productivity, prevent sickness absence and avoid claims.

Every organisation is unique and stress must be considered in the context of its structure, workforce and working practices. However, there are some general principles which can help to provide a framework. Firstly, by developing and applying a general strategy to stress management across the workforce and secondly looking at how your organisation responds to individual employees who report or show signs of excessive levels of stress. Today we will be looking at the general approach and tomorrow, exploring the response to individual employee concerns.

A variety of guidance is available. The HSE Management Standards proposes that employers assess the risks posed by stress using a range of methods and then put in place a risk assessment. In 2017, the Stevenson/Farmer report ‘Thriving at Work’ proposed core standards for mental health which included putting in place a mental health work plan, encouraging open discussion and effective people management along with good work conditions. More recently, the World Health Organisation produced their 117-page guidelines on mental health at work which focuses on organisational and individual interventions combined with training.

A common theme running through the different guidance is for each organisation to take a proactive approach to stress by examining the impact of stress on its workforce and adopting an action plan for addressing it, which should be subject to ongoing review.

Organisational culture starts at the top, so any strategy for stress must be led by management. Thankfully the days are gone when mental illness was perceived as a weakness, something to hide or be embarrassed about. Employers are encouraged to openly discuss the subject of mental illness, acknowledge that stress-related problems affect most of us, to varying degrees, and encourage staff to come forward and access support if they are struggling.

When considering your own action plan, there are various ways of assessing how much stress affects your workforce. Considering sickness absence data, staff turnover, instances of employee conflict or grievances, and information given in exit interviews can help identify whether excessive stress is causing a significant problem and the root cause of it.

The HSE also mentions the possibility of forming focus groups or using surveys or questionnaires, which may be considered a more contentious issue. Some employers see this is a useful barometer of how staff are feeling; others take the view that asking staff how stressed they are is a dangerous question. It may also be highly influenced by timing – ask most lawyers what their stress levels are like after a difficult client meeting and you will get a very different answer than if you catch them after a court win. However you approach it, just bear in mind that asking the question inevitably places the onus on you to act on the answer.

The next step will be to use that information to formulate an action plan. What are the likely causes of increased stress, how can that be reduced and what support can you put in place?

Subject to the size of an organisation, line management structures can play an incredibly important role in stress management. Regular one-to-one meetings, annual appraisals, and a good old-fashioned ‘check in’ with an employee just to see how they are doing, offers a simple and personalised way of preventing a problem from escalating.

Think about how employees can seek support, both within the organisation and externally. Some organisations have mental health first-aiders (who should be fully trained and supported) or a point of contact within HR teams for raising mental health issues. External employee assistance programmes and confidential counselling services that employees can access without having to get a referral are incredibly useful as they allow employees to get help immediately. Self-help is an important tool, allowing staff to access support directly rather than having to request it. Many insurers offer these kind of services as part of insurance policy packages but, if not, there are a plethora of services available in the marketplace.

Information should be easily accessible on company intranets and on physical signage in the workplace to ensure that the workforce is aware of what is available and how to access it. Training is also key. Make sure managers understand the action plan, the support available and what to do if a problem arises.

It is not essential for organisations to have formal stress policies in place, but a written policy or plan can be helpful to ensure that the approach is adopted consistently throughout the organisation. It also helps to manage employee expectations. However, it is equally important not to overpromise and underachieve. Having a detailed and complex policy that it is unrealistic is often worse that having no policy at all.

Finally, monitoring and reviewing the approach at regular intervals provides the opportunity to reflect on how effective it is and consider changes.

Having a proactive structure in place allows employees to feel that they are being supported and able to identify available help if they need it. It also ensures managers understand what they should do if an employee experiences a problem – with more on that in our post tomorrow.

Vanessa Latham

Vanessa Latham
Employment and Discrimination


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