November 2nd 2016 saw the 18th annual National Stress Awareness Day (#nationalstressawarenessday) take place, organized by the International Stress Management Association UK. The tagline for this year's campaign was “Workplace Wellness – Your Prime Investment”. In this blog for #IMM2016, we look at how stress impacts not only on the individual, but on the organization for which that individual is employed, and how management can help improve employee wellbeing.
Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, said at the recent WorkStress conference that if you put 100 experts in a room, they will come up with 100 different definitions of what stress is¹. We will use the definition of the Health and Safety Executive in the UK for this article’s perspective, which is “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”². It is important to emphasize that stress itself is not an illness, but it is a reaction to a prolonged period of pressure or challenge which itself can cause mental or physical harm.
In recently published figures from the HSE, during 2015/2016 in the UK, there were 488,000 cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety reported, which equates to 1,510 per 100,000 workers. This totalled 11.7 million working days lost, an average of 23.9 days per case. Stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health³. An Attitudes in the American Workplace survey found that 80% of workers felt stress on the job, with more than a third saying that their jobs are harming their physical or emotional health⁴.
In the UK, companies with 5+ employees are required to carry out a stress risk assessment through acts such as The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. US laws vary by state. There are no rules around senior leadership/HR setting their own internal company policies around staff health and wellbeing. Here is where leaders can set an example regarding combating and managing staff stress.
One of the aims of National Stress Awareness Day was to emphasize how the staff in an organization are an investment – you need a fully functioning workforce to best meet targets, exceed goals and continually succeed as a company. Of course, accidents do happen, sickness does occur and it will never be the case that there is zero cases of stress in any walk of life. However, with the growing implications around litigation, compensation and bad publicity (especially in an age of social media where bad news travels fast), senior leaders need to help staff deal with stress not just from a professional human level but a corporate level too.
The Attitudes in the American Workplace survey found that over half of staff said they needed help in learning how to manage stress, and 42% of responders said they felt that their co-workers needed such help too. Here are some positive improvements and changes you can make to your workplace safety and wellbeing culture to better support your staff:
- Management should look to implement a stress diagnostic system. Common in larger companies, this can also be used in smaller companies, where management increase their awareness and work on attitudes to concerns around stress from its workers. This type of research can also give insight into employee stress levels as a whole, be it through a survey or through fostering better relationships with unions or trade bodies.
- Management should look to
become thought leaders and take action to improve employee confidence in their abilities to manage stress, be it through implementing stress preventative programmes, or employee perks such as a gym within the office (research shows that exercise can help reduce anxiety and muscle tension, for example). Similarly, any programmes that are running in the business currently should be evaluated. Mindfulness training is one such practice which is becoming more and more common in the workplace (we looked at its role in EHS here) – it can both promote productivity and resilience at work, with some organizations highlighting 62 minutes a day additional productivity time through staff who work with an attitude of mindfulness.
- Management should document and report stress-related matters efficiently and thoroughly – by monitoring (and knowing what to look for through training and experience) the manager can therefore combat stress claims and provide appropriate support to those in need. This can also help in any times of potential litigation.
- Lastly, show empathy – Kindness costs nothing, and the benefits are great.
Work as a whole is becoming more demanding: 53% of the workforce feel they are closer to ‘burnout’ than they were five years ago⁵. I will leave you with the words of the organizer of National Stress Awarness Day, ISMA's Carole Speirs:
"The company workforce is an organisation's most valuable resource. It is difficult, if not impossible, to replace this human asset, which is why 'workforce wellness' is a major organisational imperative."
For more information on how to identify stress, here are some symptoms. If you feel you are suffering from stress, or would like more information on stress-related illness, you can contact Mind (UK) or American Institute of Stress (North America) for more information.
1 - https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/14/workplace-stress-hans-selye
2 - http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/furtheradvice/whatisstress.htm
3 - http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/index.htm
4 - http://www.stress.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/2001Attitude-in-the-Workplace-Harris.pdf
5 - http://press.regus.com/hong-kong/majority-on-brink-of-stress