Why is managing workplace stress important?

Work-related stress causes significant sickness absences in UK businesses. The Health and Safety Executive found that between 2022 and 2023, 1.8 million workers reported experiencing work-related illness, causing 35.2 million lost days. Around half of those employees reported experiencing stress or other work-related mental health issues.

Stress at work can impair employees' performance and behaviour and affect their wellbeing and your business. Helping your team manage stress at work can reduce absenteeism and improve employee morale and performance. Ensuring your employees feel supported and valued can also enhance employee engagement and retention.

The causes of work-related stress

It's important to remember that your employees will respond to stress at work in different ways. What they find stressful will also vary. However, some fundamental causes of stress at work need careful monitoring and management.

Workers may feel stressed if they feel they're under too much pressure. This could happen due to excessive workloads or being asked to work at a level that exceeds their current skill level. Providing support and training to help them develop their skills can improve things. However, even experienced employees can get stressed if they don't have the correct information and support to do their work correctly. Enabling staff to manage their workload and have some control over the way they work can help them manage stress. However, it's vital they still feel supported.

Good workplace relationships can support employees' mental health, but the reverse is also true. Workplace bullying or conflict with colleagues can be sources of stress at work, so it's vital to have appropriate policies to manage this.

Periods of change can be stressful, whether they may lead to redundancy or other changes. Ensuring your managers are trained to help staff navigate change and manage stress is essential.

What's the difference between good and bad stress at work?

When we talk about work-related stress, we typically focus on the negatives, such as experiencing stress that is overwhelming or the result of too much pressure at work. However, there are different forms of stress at work, and some can positively impact team performance.

It's essential to recognise the difference between positive and negative stress. Any effective strategy to manage work-related stress should include ways to harness positive stress and avoid stress levels that could lead to physical and emotional exhaustion.

When can some stress at work be a good thing?

The idea of positive stress may seem like an odd concept. However, we all have built-in biological systems to help us respond to stress. Most of us are familiar with the 'fight or flight' response, where a burst of adrenaline and cortisol helped our ancestors fight or flee a predator. The conditions are different in the workplace, as there's no physical threat. However, our bodies respond to imagined threats similarly, which can help employees respond to urgent deadlines or high-pressure situations such as an important meeting or presentation.

Research has identified the concept of 'eustress' or good stress. It doesn't make staff feel overwhelmed but can motivate and energise them. So, what's the difference between eustress and chronic stress?

How does positive stress differ from chronic work-related stress?

One key difference between good and bad stress is that good stress doesn't last too long. There's a period of intense pressure and increased effort leading up to a deadline or event, followed by relaxation and a return to normal work levels.

Chronic work-related stress occurs when the same excessive pressures are constantly present. Employees feel stressed and unable to control or manage their workload effectively, so they're on constant high alert. This can have psychological effects, including anxiety and depression. It can also lead to impaired work performance due to procrastination and difficulty making decisions.

The stress response can also affect employees' physical health if it persists long-term. These may include chronic fatigue, migraines, high blood pressure, and breathing problems.

What are the signs of workplace stress?

Recognising the signs of stress at work is vital to managing stress effectively.

Individual workers can exhibit stress in various ways through their behaviour. You may notice that they react more emotionally, perhaps crying or becoming aggressive. Alternatively, they may seem more withdrawn than usual. There may also be signs of reduced motivation or confidence, such as being reluctant to take on new projects, frequently late for work, or taking more time off.

Teams can show signs of stress collectively. They may share some of the same symptoms as individuals, leading to arguments. However, you may also notice patterns of increased sickness absence, staff turnover and complaints about their colleagues.

Tips to manage workplace stress

Now we understand the signs of stress and why it matters; what can you do to help reduce work-related stress among your workforce?

Here are some ways you can help your team manage stress.

Carry out a stress risk assessment

You'll likely already have various risk assessments to identify and reduce workplace hazards. Your legal duty to look after your employees' health and safety includes reducing work-related stress.

A separate risk assessment identifying potential sources of stress and ways to manage them is helpful. However, it's also a good idea to review your existing risk assessments to consider whether they adequately address stress associated with other tasks and include appropriate control measures. For example, we've already mentioned that workplace bullying can be a significant source of stress, as can discrimination or harassment. You'll likely already have considered ways to avoid health issues resulting from repetitive physical tasks. Applying the same approach to work-related stress can support employees' mental health by ensuring they aren't constantly engaged in highly stressful or monotonous tasks and have some variety in their work.

The Health and Safety Executive provides useful guidance, including management standards and a risk assessment template. The management standards help you identify areas of work that can impact stress levels and introduce measures to reduce work-related stress.

Train your team to recognise the signs of stress

Workplace training can help your team to recognise the signs of stress in themselves and others.

You can approach training in various ways, including toolbox talks, team discussions or training from a third-party provider. It can also be helpful to display information around your workplace, for example, in the break room where everyone will see it. This can supplement other types of training by providing a regular reminder.

Of course, appropriate support is also essential to enable employees to report concerns when necessary. Create a culture where staff can speak openly to their manager or colleague and ensure everyone knows where to seek help when needed. An Employee Assistance Programme enables employees to seek advice without worrying about the impact on their careers.

Training managers to have difficult conversations when they've noticed signs of stress in their staff or where a colleague has reported concerns avoids making the problem worse or ignoring it altogether.

Offer flexible working

Sometimes, stress can come from an employee's personal life and spill over into their work and flexible working can help them manage this. Working from home or adjusting their hours can help staff manage their home life and work commitments more easily.

Equally, flexible working can help your team manage sources of stress. For example, they may have a stressful commute, with crowded trains or heavy traffic, meaning they're already stressed before starting their day. An earlier or later finish or occasional days working at home lets them avoid this.

However, this approach may be unhelpful if an employee is stressed due to a colleague's behaviour and is trying to avoid them. It's more effective to tackle the root cause of the problem.

Encourage staff to take regular breaks

Taking regular breaks has many mental health and wellbeing benefits. A proper lunch break lets staff get away from their desks, go for a walk in the fresh air, and eat well. Taking care of physical health helps reduce stress. Starting a lunchtime walking group can help employees get to know each other away from the office and build positive relationships.

Shorter breaks during the day are also beneficial, as they prevent staff from feeling bogged down in a particular task. Research suggests that taking breaks can improve productivity, as staff return feeling refreshed and may even come up with new ways to tackle a problem. It helps if managers can lead by example; if leaders take breaks, staff are more likely to follow suit.

Support healthy eating

Physical and mental health are closely linked, so eating well can improve our ability to manage stress.

If you have a workplace canteen or restaurant, consider offering healthy options or providing healthy snacks in the break room. Training and education can also empower staff to make healthier choices.

Having a clean and comfortable place to sit and eat, with facilities to store food at work, can encourage employees to bring healthy meals from home rather than opting for the local takeaway.

Offer mindfulness training

Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword, but it can positively impact mental health by helping staff understand and manage their feelings and reduce their stress levels. It benefits staff by making them feel calmer and manage difficult emotions and thoughts.

You can choose to provide mindfulness training or meditation sessions in the workplace. Yoga can also promote mindfulness and has physical wellbeing benefits. Some health insurance policies include access to mindfulness and meditation apps via their member rewards programme, allowing staff to practice independently.

Work in targeted bursts

As mentioned, breaks can help staff relax and return to work refreshed. Working in short, targeted bursts can also help employees access the benefits of positive stress and improve productivity. The Pomodoro technique suggests choosing a single task and setting a timer. You then focus on the task for 25 minutes before taking a five-minute break, then a longer break after four 25-minute blocks. It can improve focus but also encourages staff to break tasks into manageable sections, which helps them feel more in control and less overwhelmed.

Taking a break to move around or do something enjoyable allows stress hormones to dissipate, replacing them with mood-boosting hormones.

Invest in employee wellbeing

There are many ways to invest in your employees' wellbeing, including training and workplace wellness initiatives.

Investing in employee health insurance lets staff access private healthcare when needed. You can choose enhanced mental health coverage to provide access to counselling, CBT and psychiatric treatment if required.

Health insurance also offers other support services, such as access to an Employee Assistance Programme for advice and support over the phone. Many providers also offer health assessments and anonymised management insights to enable you to identify wellbeing trends. Some will also help you create appropriate workplace wellness initiatives.

Signpost your employees to appropriate support

Stress awareness training for managers should include sources of support. If you offer an Employee Assistance Programme, ensure staff are aware of it and know how to use it.

Sometimes, an employee may need more robust support. If managers are concerned about an employee, the first step may be encouraging them to speak with their GP. Occupational health can also advise on work adjustments or during a sickness absence.

Seek employee feedback

As mentioned, employees experience stress differently. Seeking employee feedback helps you understand what causes employees' stress and how they respond to it. You can seek input in the form of a questionnaire. Forming employee focus groups with staff from different areas and levels of the business allows employees to air concerns and discuss solutions. Group members can also seek feedback from their team or comment on concerns raised during informal discussions.

Get in touch

Health insurance can provide your business with tools to support your employees' wellbeing and reduce work-related stress. Globacare is a regulated broker that helps our clients find the best health insurance for themselves and their teams. Contact us for tailored advice.

Nicholas Zainal
Senior Broker

Nicholas Zainal

Nick has a wealth of knowledge and experience, having worked in the market for over a decade. He's a diligent broker who can advise on health insurance, life insurance, critical illness cover and business protection.

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