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How to spot stress in the workplace – a guide for HR professionals

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by Sellick Partnership | 24 April 2019

Do you work in a stressful environment and worried that your employees may be anxious and considering a move? Are you a HR Manager concerned about how to approach employees about stress? You are not alone as many HR departments agree with these challenges and this is an issue we regularly talk about with our clients. In this blog, our HR recruitment team discuss the importance of recognising stress in the workplace, and also uses advice from our HR client base to discuss what employers and HR departments should be doing to ensure productivity and morale is not lost as a result.

Stress can be a debilitating condition for employees, and the ripple effects of it can lead to numerous downsides for a company. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 44% of all work–related illness in 2017–18. This equates to a loss of 15.4 million working days – an average of 25.8 days per person.

Due to this, it is now more important than ever for businesses and HR professionals to be aware of their responsibilities with regard to maintaining and supporting the wellbeing of employees. Without a wellbeing strategy in place, organisations stand to lose out on two fronts: time and resources spent on resolving situations caused by stress that could have been avoided in the first place; and the loss of talented and valuable employees to absenteeism or resignation.

Both of these instances can lead to deadlines being missed or the quality of work produced for consumers and clients to be below-par. Long-term, a company may lose out on business as clients move away or they may simply find themselves short-staffed and struggling to fulfil the work required of them by customers or clients. None of which makes for good business sense.

In this article, we will examine the role of business leaders and HR managers with regard to stress, how stress can be spotted, what to do when it is spotted, and why it is important to engage with employees on this issue.

What does stress look like at work?

There are two behavioural components that HR managers and line managers should be on the lookout for; changes in the way someone acts, and changes in the way they think or feel.

Absenteeism is the most obvious indicator of stress in the way someone acts, however business leaders should also be on the lookout for individuals who start being late for work, or who take longer and more frequent breaks during the day. This type of behaviour can often be dismissed as the staff member being lazy or uncommitted – yet this can be key signals for managers to intervene.

Heightened emotions, mood swings or more volatile moods can indicate stress, as can employees who withdraw themselves from their colleagues, exhibit a loss of motivation or speak of a lack of self-esteem. These signs can be harder to pick up, and so it is important for line managers to check in with all of those who work under them on a regular basis – such as an informal weekly catch up – in order to monitor for any changes in behaviour.

What can cause stress in the workplace?

Excessively high workloads are the most common cause of stress according to the HSE, with survey participants struggling to get through their work, and becoming increasingly weighed down as more and more work is given to them to complete.

Linked to high workloads are the issues surrounding long working hours and employees being given tight or unrealistic deadlines. While the average employee works around 38 hours per week, this can skyrocket to upwards of 50 hours depending on the industry or the job position, impacting on family life, the time to relax, enjoy hobbies or exercise – all of which are important for good mental health.

Fears or concerns about their position and job security as well as the lack of opportunity for growth or development can be pain points for employees. Business leaders should take steps to ensure their staff members feel confident in the company, in their current role, and in their future.

Finally, interpersonal relationships are also a significant cause of stress in the workplace – such as bullying or cliquey, exclusionary behaviour as well as more explicit clashes in personality – especially if the poor relationship has developed across job levels. If combined with little or no support from peers or managers, employees can end up feeling isolated or neglected, which can lead to poor performance or preventable mistakes occurring.

How can HR prevent, address and alleviate stress?

Prevention is always best practice, so HR departments should implement a structured system of practical support that facilitates a culture focused on preventing stress. As a first point of call, all companies should undertake a risk assessment to identify likely causes of stress and take steps to address any flagged issues.

From here, HR should work with the wider senior management team to introduce and implement a wellbeing strategy or employee assistance programme (EAP) that is specific to the organisation. This should be communicated regularly and effectively to employees across all levels and departments so they know where to turn for assistance. In this way, organisations can hope to encourage employees to come forward before the situation escalates rather than needing a more lengthy or intensive strategy to resolve it – which can end up costing the business more.

The EAP could include wellbeing initiatives to encourage healthy eating, getting active, taking a full lunch hour, smoking cessation, and reducing alcohol and caffeine intake and so on. A workforce that is physically healthy often equates to a mentally healthy workplace. To maintain this culture, HR leaders should also work with managers to regularly monitor staff satisfaction levels, and implement improvements for any flagged issues.

Once an employee has come forward and raised that they are suffering from stress, then the HR department should arrange a private meeting with the employee to discuss their problems and what might be causing them in order to propose and agree on solutions as a way forward. These could include offering training to help the employee feel better equipped to perform their role, medical treatment or counselling.

Organisationally, HR may wish to work with the employee and relevant manager to redesign the job role more appropriately or move the employee into a different department.

Additionally, giving the employee greater control over how and when they deliver their work could help reduce stress. We are aware this may not be possible in every business, but going some way to try and allow your employees to enjoy a greater work/life balance would go a long way. For example, the introduction of flexi-time, job-sharing or the ability to work from home – incentives that have also been known to improve productivity and are frequently voted among the top desirable benefits of jobseekers. Finally, more in-depth support and interaction from line managers and peers should be offered to allow the employee to feel more engaged and connected with their colleagues.

This blog is intended as a resource to help HR professionals understand and spot stress in the workplace. Should you have any concerns about employees who are exhibiting symptoms, you may wish to signpost them to Mind or their GP for professional support and advice.

Alternatively, you can check out more handy resources in our Client Resources section.