Tackling workplace stress: changing minds, attitudes and behaviours

working parent stressed
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By Tara O’Sullivan, CMO at Skillsoft

According to UK Government research, stress and poor mental health costs UK businesses between £33 billion and £42 billion a year through reduced productivity, high staff turnover and sickness absence—equivalent to £1,205-£1,560 for every employee in the UK workforce.

This highlights why all employers need to act on mental health in the workplace as a top business priority, but it should also be as much of an employee wellbeing priority.

In recent years, public debate has done much to stimulate open and honest conversations relating to the mental health difficulties faced by many of us. Yet when it comes to the workplace, few employees are comfortable speaking to a manager about their stress levels or mental health.

Facing facts: the growing need to combat stress in the workplace

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), one-in-four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem at some point, with anxiety and depression the top problems reported. All too often these are a reaction to work-related issues.

Indeed, according to the HSE, work related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 57 per cent of the total number of lost working days in 2017/18.

Awareness of the need to combat stress in the workplace is growing, especially in public sector organisations. NHS Employers has recently reported that stress accounts for over 30 per cent of sickness absence in the NHS and costs the service £300-£400 billion a year. Meanwhile, the Police Federation reports that 80 per cent of officers had felt stressed in the last year.

Meanwhile, in 2018 a YouGov survey on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation and Mental Health First Aid England made the surprising discovery that millennials are the demographic most likely to feel under pressure in the workplace, with 34 per cent saying stress impacts on their productivity, and 28 per cent saying their organisation’s culture means they’re expected to power through stress.

Workplace stress: the causal factors

Job insecurity, heavy workloads and pressure to perform are all key contributory factors that can result in workers experiencing high levels of stress. Other top causes reported by workers include concerns about individual or team performance, organisational changes, unrealistic or tight deadlines, customer satisfaction levels, and office politics.

However, research conducted by Canada Life Group Insurance in 2018 found that while 9.7 million UK workers say their productivity is being damaged by stress and anxiety, many employer organisations are failing to provide the support employees struggling with issues at work need. As a result, enterprise productivity is suffering.

So, what steps can employers take to improve employee wellbeing in the workplace?

Make mental health a cultural conversation

Everyone across the organisation should feel comfortable talking about stress and mental health, and teams should be able to get together to identify the sources of stress and ways to reduce its impact.

With greater openness, comes greater insights that benefit both the organisation as a whole and individuals at a personal level. Everyone needs to be able to access resources that will help them spot the signs that an individual or team is experiencing stress. Similarly, talking about what needs to happen to help colleagues, managers, and subordinates through difficult times provides signposts that move the conversations on from awareness to action.

Encourage people to ‘take time out’

Last year, 40 per cent of all UK employees reported taking just half their annual leave. Meanwhile, 23 per cent of those who did go on holiday regularly checked emails, while 15 per cent continued to work out of fear of getting behind or missing targets.

Encouraging workers to get their work-life priorities in order and take all their allocated annual leave is vital, so they don’t risk burn out further down the line. Managers need to have candid conversations with staff to make sure everyone understands it’s important to take time out and prioritise planned downtime. Whether that’s taking the odd day off to spend time with family, indulging in a ‘me’ day, or a longer and fully rejuvenating break.

Identifying which members of staff consistently fail to take up their full leave allocation can be the start of staging an intervention or discussion that gets to the bottom of what’s inhibiting them from taking time out. If these members of staff are in management or leadership positions, addressing this is vital. Whether they intend to or not, they are setting a tone that could be followed by other employees looking to them for guidance on the organisation’s culture.

Going further, encouraging individuals to take a ‘mental health’ day — with guidance on how to structure a wellbeing day and a follow-up de-brief on how they found the experience — could be the start of supporting people to be more mindful about their own wellbeing.

Explore the positive impact of flexible working

Our increasingly busy and ‘always-on’ lives mean we’re all constantly juggling life and work pressures and that’s when the benefits of flexible working can come to the fore. Research shows that flexible working options can make workers feel more valued and more trusted. As a result, their wellbeing increases, as does their productivity – it’s a win-win.

Flexible working can help create a more healthy work-life balance that makes it possible to retain the best staff and reduce absenteeism and work-related stress. Whether that’s flexible working hours, the freedom to work from home or the ability to organise their own working week, small changes can make a big difference.

With April marking the start of national Stress Awareness Month, now is the time to raise the profile of workplace wellbeing and kick off programmes that will help and support employees. With employee wellbeing increasingly being viewed as a strategic priority by organisations across the UK, equipping workers with the resources and awareness they need to nurture their own mental health will benefit everyone.

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