Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for approximately 11.4 million reported lost working days per year in Britain. According to The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), 415,000 British people believe they are experiencing workplace stress at a level that is making them ill.
The Psychosocial Working Conditions (PWC) survey also found that 16.7% of all UK workers in 2009 regarded their job as very or extremely stressful.
As we look ahead to a new year, particularly with the country still in the grips of the recession, stress should be on every employer's agenda. And there are a number of steps companies can take to reduce stress among the workforce.
Communication is key when it comes to maintaining minimal levels of stress in the workplace. Without employers and employees having clear channels of communication, even the most thorough stress management programmes can fail.
Staff must be consulted, and employers need to listen to what they have to say to see what is causing stress. Something as simple as sending out a questionnaire to staff can be a great way to obtain immediate feedback, at the same time demonstrating that the business is committed to combating unnecessary stress. This can be done quickly and anonymously and can yield useful insights.
Accept there is no quick fix
Every workplace is different, so you need to work out which initiatives would be most effective for you. Unfortunately, unlike other aspects of health and safety, stress is not tangible. This means that when it comes to stress, it is not a case of putting a first-aid box on the wall. There are a number of measures that can be taken, varying in time, cost and resource requirements. The feasibility of these depends on the type of industry and workplace in question.
Stress management courses
Stress awareness courses, such as the ones regularly held by St John Ambulance, include valuable information for employers, employees and the general public.
They are a good way of teaching staff how to identify the early signs of stress and what measures to take to avoid it. These courses help to define stress, highlight the causes of stress, teach how to perform a risk assessment to identify the level of stress within the workplace and provide tips on how to cope with stress, as well as providing immediate and long-term solutions. The course also covers stress-busting techniques such as exercise, relaxation, breathing and visualisation.
Recognise that little steps go a long way
Try not to be over-ambitious. Short term initiatives are a quick and easy way to get the stress management ball rolling. For example, hanging a punch bag in the office can provide staff with a fun way to relieve tension. If you have the space to do so, setting up a 'time-out room' is a great way to give staff a quiet place to work or have a five-minute break. Offices can be very busy, stressful environments, and some people work much faster if they are not subject to any distractions, increasing productivity while decreasing stress at the same time.
Be aware of the signs of stress
Employers should be aware of the many signs of an over-stressed workforce. Common symptoms for employers to look out for include:
• Increased susceptibility to colds and other infections
• Tiredness and sleep-related difficulties
• Back and neck ache
• Digestive problems
• Wanting to cry
• Short temper
• Eating without being hungry
• Smoking and drinking excessively
• Loss of motivation and commitment.
Although it may not be possible to fully implement it in all industries, flexible working can also help alleviate stress. Flexible working does not simply mean a change in working hours. Most staff would just be happy to know that their employers are willing to show some degree of flexibility where they can, for example, allowing them to sometimes work away from their desk, or to take their lunch break at any time during the day.
Demonstrate long-term thinking
There are many long-term initiatives to be considered. Staff committees can be set up, where issues causing stress can be discussed and new solutions thought up. You can also offer anemployee assistance programme (EAP) to help employees deal with personal problems that might adversely affect their work performance, health, and wellbeing. EAPs generally include assessment, short-term counselling and referral services.
Time should be spent assessing what is going wrong, implementing initiatives, and then reviewing the situation. It is important to keep detailed records of your findings in order to reach your goal of a minimally stressful work environment. Initiatives that you have tried must be reviewed to find out what else might need to be done. Don't be afraid to admit when certain initiatives have not worked. Be open to ideas and work closely with staff to get to the root of the problems, providing them with regular updates.
Encourage staff to praise employees more
A very simple step that is forgotten far too often is praise. Managers are often quick to reprimand poor work and slow to praise good work, but the impact a few words can make with some employees is very surprising.
Know when staff are more susceptible to stress
More people tend to take sick leave at busy periods of the year - this is partially down to stress. If you have a good stress management scheme under way, this should include knowing when staff are more susceptible to stress and taking steps to combat this in to keep staff absence levels low.
Clive James, training development manager, St John Ambulance
For more information from St John Ambulance on stress awareness, please visit http://www.sja.org.uk/sja/ or call 08700 104950.