Work can be stressful for us all, whether it’s meeting deadlines or being thrown into the deep end on a big project, it’s rarely plain sailing no matter what industry you work in. Even though we all expect stress at work, it’s important that as managers and employers we monitor the levels of stress that our employees are encountering. Excessive levels of stress can become detrimental to both individuals and businesses if they aren’t prevented strategically and before they escalate.

The Mental Health Organisation defines stress as: ‘our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event’.  Stress can be caused by a variety of factors and workplace stress can usually be broken down into two categories. The first is organisational factors which can be stressors such as poor management and ineffective time management. The second are environmental factors which can be anything from a lack of space in a working environment to excessive noise disturbing workflow.

Why Is It Vital for Employers to Recognise Workplace Stressors at an Early Stage?

To minimise stress levels in your workplace it’s essential that you’re able to identify these factors and act upon them before they become detrimental to your team and your business. Taking action early on reduces the impact and allows you to manage the causes before they get too much to handle. Like any other risk, stress can be assessed systematically by identifying the contributing factors and in turn working to reduce them.

Here are some key steps in identifying stress hazards at work:

  1. Take time to go over workplace documents and examine them for anything that may point towards high levels of stress for individuals. For example, an employee’s sick leave records could give you an insight into whether workplace stress is having such an impact that it requires time away from the environment.
  2. Every so often take a few minutes away from your desk to observe your employees at work. Is there obvious tension between people? Can you see that someone is visibly stressed about their work? Is there anything that’s evidently irritating the team? Remember that their working environment is probably very different to yours. Spend some time in your team’s working environment to monitor things like noise levels and the temperature. By observing your team in their environment you’ll be able to pick up on a lot of things.
  3. Actively seek feedback from your team about anything that could be causing high stress levels.
  4. Be aware of factors that could lead to mental health issues within your organisation. A common example of this in today’s workplace is that those who feel that they can’t achieve a healthy work/life balance won’t feel happy in either their work or their home life. Only 43% of employees feel like their bosses care about work/life balance.

Reducing stress levels on a business-wide scale will undoubtedly benefit the wellbeing of all employees. However, the effects go further than that and result in increased performance levels within the whole organisation. As we go further, we’ll discuss techniques you can include in your Workplace Stress Strategy.

Different Industries and Different Stressors

Each industry will come with different stressors that impact on those working in them. However, across the board, according to the HSE there a 6 main causes of stress in any workplace:

  1. Demands: Are you expecting too much of your employees? This can make them feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with their workload. A huge 70% of employees feel like they’ve got too much on at work.
  2. Control: Are you forcing your way of doing things onto how your team carry out their tasks? A little bit of freedom can go a long way in creating a happy employee.
  3. Support: Conversely you should look to whether you are supporting your team and enabling them to achieve at higher levels.
  4. Relationships: Poor workplace relationships can often lead to grievances being raised, bullying allegations being made and unhealthy team dynamics.
  5. Role: Are everybody’s job roles clear? If there are crossed wires regarding job demands it can cause stress for both employees and employers.
  6. Change: Many people find change stressful. It can lead to uncertainty and fear about where their role is heading.

As well as these 6 main categories, there are other factors that you need to consider:

  • Unreasonable Working Hours
  • Too Heavy of a Workload
  • Large Organisational Changes
  • Constant Tight Deadlines
  • Changes to Duties without Discussion or Warning
  • Job Insecurity
  • Little or Lack of Autonomy
  • Mundane and Repetitive Work
  • Insufficient Training – only 25% of Employees feel that they’re offered Sufficient Professional Development Opportunities
  • Over-Supervision
  • Poor Working Environments
  • Poor Resources and Equipment
  • Low Recognition and Rewards
  • Toxic Workplace Relationships
  • Feelings that an Employee’s Salary doesn’t match their Responsibilities

In different industries workplace stress will have varying impacts. If your workplace is a dangerous environment it is important that you ensure workplace stress doesn’t reach unmanageable levels as this can result in employees becoming more prone to accidents. 60-80% of all workplace accidents are a direct result of stress!

Stressors & Descriptions

When looking at stress in the workplace there are multiple indicators that signpost high levels of stress. As with any risk assessment it’s important to break them down in order to be able to manage them and create a strategy.

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Irritable and aggressive behaviour; becoming withdrawn and isolating themselves from the rest of the team.
  • Changes in eating habits, sleeping patterns and the use of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, drugs or self-medication. This can result in dramatic changes in appearance and weight.
  • Becoming increasingly ‘difficult’ and less co-operative.
  • Signs that they’re struggling with life at home.
  • Lack of creativity and initiative.
  • Drops in performance.

Physiological Symptoms

  • Migraines and headaches.
  • Stomach problems.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Back, shoulder and neck pains.
  • General feeling of being unwell and fatigued.
  • Lack of will to work.

Psychological Symptoms

  • Seeing the workplace as a source of anxiety and tension.
  • Decreased self-esteem.
  • Becoming forgetful.
  • Higher absence rates due to psychological stress. 1,000,000 employees miss work every day due to workplace stress.
  • Inability to focus and concentrate.

The Benefits of a Workplace Stress Strategy

As you begin working to prevent stress in the workplace, you’ll begin noticing significant benefits to both your employees and your business. You’ll start to notice less symptoms of poor mental and physical health in your employees, as well as reduced absences and amplifying levels of productivity. Your employees will feel more satisfied in their roles and in turn will become more engaged with their work. However, the biggest benefit by far will be improved wellbeing for each member of your team.

Practices that you should make part of your every-day activities to ensure you’re dealing with stress in your business:

  1. Ensuring clear communication between all employees. If your employees feel that they can come to you and discuss aspects of their day-to-day lives at work that cause stress, you’ll have a higher chance of understanding and eradicating them.
  2. Having a clear understanding that all managers are dedicated to handling work-related stress and having an open dialogue with all employees.
  3. All employees should be encouraged to share feedback and suggest control options.

For some factors, particularly environmental, it’s easy to control them at the source. For example, a noisy work environment can be dealt with quickly by removing unnecessary noise from the workplace. Employees experiencing back pains due to an unfit working environment can be resolved by implementing measures such as chairs which better support the back or rearranging furniture.

The success of any initiative in any business is dependent on senior managements’ commitment to it. For real change to happen everybody needs to be involved and work actively. Communication needs to be open and often, this way all employees feel that the organisation is serious about making their lives as stress-free as possible at work. Despite huge steps in the right direction where workplace stress is concerned, there’s still a long way to go and still a huge number of people with the ‘leave your baggage at home’ ideology. It’s vital that every single member of the team understands how workplace stress can impact upon both employees and employers.

There are still businesses which will dismiss people for excessive sick leave and disregard applicants with mental health issues associated with extended time off. A workplace with an effective strategy in place will have a forum for discussing sickness leave and working to resolve any issues that stem from the workplace.

Ultimately, work related stress is inevitable. There are times in every job role that will be stressful. However, constant stressful experiences and stress inducing factors can be detrimental to both employee wellbeing and the efficiency of your business as a whole. By developing a strategy to eradicate as much stress as possible you will create a team of happy employees who work in an environment that allows them to work productively. With the full commitment of the management team the benefits of this strategy will soon become evident; from fully engaged employees, to reduced costs for the employer as a result of less absences and better work ethics.