Employers need to rethink stress

Every year, more and more people are absent from work owing to stress. The increases are reflected in recent research results but – in most cases – methods of prevention are not improved, says Kevin Friery.

UK organisations are battling with a stress epidemic. The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures revealed that in 2013 alone, more than 15 million absence days were taken due to stress, anxiety and depression. There certainly isn’t a shortage of research on this subject, yet organisations still don’t seem to have a cure for this ever-increasing problem. Clearly, there is something else at play with stress; some aspect that is not being understood which is leaving employers and employees exposed and at risk.

Importance of the “decision moment”

From the employer point of view, the problem is that much of the work focuses on what causes stress, rather than looking at the link between “being stressed” and “being absent”. That link is about the “decision moment”; the decision-making process in people’s minds when they think about their health and how it can be affected by work. Addressing the decision moment will result in a fundamental change in the way we think about stress. Rather than trying to push stress out of the system, we need to start changing behaviour around stress in order to influence the decision moment and to create a more positive outcome for the individual.

Basic needs come first

Before organisations can start talking about being an employer of choice, they need to think about the decisions they make as an employer that impact on the very basic needs that people have. A good starting point in this quest is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – a model of what motivates people’s behaviour, devised by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. According to Maslow, physiological needs are always assessed first, which means that questions such as “How do I feel physically?” and “Might work exacerbate the problem?” will always come before questions considering the impact that their absence may have on their employer and immediate team. This means that employers need to meet workers’ basic physical needs before they begin any schemes to increase engagement amongst workers.

Where to start?

The understanding of stress is somewhat distorted among employers. For many years, we’ve analysed how people make use of the employee assistance programmes that Right Management Workplace Wellness provides to more than half a million UK workers each year. Consistently, we have found the same pattern with stress – approximately 85% of the presenting problems that people discuss are factors that have an impact at work, yet are generated entirely outside of work, for example, relationship problems, concerns about debt or caring for an elderly relative. This means that employers need to think differently about stress to start with, then look at how they can meet the basic physical and safety needs of employees.

What does this mean in practice?

No two workplaces are the same and it’s important to identify the particular hazards associated with different organisations and departments. For example, if someone is stressed because they care for a sick relative, then a company rule forbidding employees to bring in their mobile phone can really exacerbate this feeling. Their need to feel that a hospital can reach them is not met, which can sway their decision about going to work. If they were allowed their phone, the outcome of their decision moment would most likely be different.

So, even though the source of their stress has nothing to do with the workplace, employers’ actions will have an impact on their presence and productivity. Comparisons can be made regarding unnecessary rules about the use of social media. Not allowing people to use social media at all can make them feel cut off from the outside world, agitated and ultimately decrease their performance.

Who is responsible for this shift in thinking?

The truth is that organisations can’t establish some grand solution to deal with stress. This is not about a product, it’s about thinking differently and it’s about looking at individual cases. Responsibility for this shift doesn’t lie with HR departments; in fact, in many cases it’s the line managers who are often the weakest link. It’s a well-known fact that managers tend to become managers because of their technical capability but quality of their people skills is often overlooked. They find themselves managing people almost accidentally because it comes with the territory. Without giving managers appropriate training and enabling them to think and act differently, organisations won’t be able to tackle the stress epidemic.

A competent manager needs to be able to have a brave and often difficult return-to-work interview with employees who have been signed off to understand what made them take time off in the first place and find out how they can support them in the future. Most importantly, managers need to be asking: “What could have we done as employers to make it possible for you to come to work instead of taking time off?”

Kevin Friery

About Kevin Friery

Kevin Friery is clinical director of Right Management Workplace Wellness and author of the White Paper "Rethinking stress". Workplace Wellness is the employee assistance and wellbeing expert within ManpowerGroup.
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