It’s easy to get stressed about stress!

Let’s be clear, first of all, what we’re talking about when we mention the ‘s’ word.

Stress is defined well by the Health and Safety Executive as an ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.

Essentially, it’s a set and series of reactions and responses to the particular pressures experienced by an individual. It is this subjectivity – the personal nature of the reactions and responses – that makes stress so difficult to address with a general, ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Put another way, while one person may feel stressed by a situation or experience, another may not.

There is also an important legal aspect to stress that needs to be acknowledged upfront: the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) highlights the duty of care that organisations have in relation to psychological as well as physical health. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) also places a statutory duty on an employer to conduct risk assessments of the workplace, including assessing the psychological risks of the workplace and putting in place preventative steps where a risk is known.

So when it comes to tackling stress in your workplace – whether it’s the stress you feel as an individual manager or the stress being experienced by members of your team – it’s important to use a range of techniques and preventative measures to manage it and its impact.

But where to start?

It’s got to be getting to grips with understanding what may be causing stress in your organisation.

You could survey employees – formally or informally over coffee and a chat – to ask them how they’re feeling and what they think is putting pressure on them and their jobs. Or you could choose to undertake a more formal health and safety risk assessment – the Health and Safety Executive, for example, has a number of useful tools and templates to help identify and understand the causes of stress in the workplace. It’s the responses you receive here that will help you identify the causes and triggers of stress and help you decide the best way to deal with it.

Your ‘investigation’ might point to bullying and harassment, poor line management, unmanageable workloads, inconsiderate deadlines, a negative organisational culture, conflict between colleagues or poor internal communications as triggers. There may also be non-work related contributing factors to stress, such as debt and financial issues, alcohol or drug dependency or marital and childcare problems.

But what if your employees can’t vocalise, pinpoint or discuss the issues that are causing them stress?

Where this is the case, stress can go ‘underground’, making itself apparent through symptoms such as increased levels of regular or unexplained absence, poor concentration, low motivation, anxiousness, frustration, depression, mood swings or isolation from other team members.

These symptoms can be dangerous for the productivity and performance of your business. The good news is that services from Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can help with all these issues and also provides a confidential and impartial channel for employees to seek support, guidance and information.

Alongside making support services such as EAPs available, there are other techniques you can adopt to proactively manage stress within your workplace, including:

  • Reviewing employee workloads – encouraging employees and line managers to take the opportunity presented by regular employee appraisals to assess individual and team workloads. Are employees under excessive pressure to get everything done? Do they have the necessary skills to prioritise or delegate their work? Are your expectations as a manager and / or business owner reasonable when it comes to delivery targets? Or do employees not have enough to do and are therefore stressed that their talent and ability is not being maximised?
  • Encouraging a culture that promotes a positive work / life balance – in particular, you and your managers have the opportunity to set a good example when it comes to balancing personal and professional commitments. Team members will take their lead from you if you’re burning the midnight oil in the office and stressed about work which – whether it’s intended or not – will put pressure on employees too.
  • Communicating openly with employees – encouraging a culture that encourages people to talk openly about issues and problems they’re having in the workplace is something to be aspired to. Think about having an ‘open door’ policy and culture that enables employees to raise issues of concern or interest and vocalise problems or concerns they may have.

Stress is going to be a certainty for most businesses and employees, but the way you tackle it and put appropriate support on hand, will minimise the impact it has on you, your organisation and your people.

Image: Stress via Shutterstock