Know how to identify the warning signs of stress

Mental health problems are on the increase, with research from Mind, the UK’s leading mental health charity, revealing that one in 10 employees has been to their GP for stress or anxiety-related problems since the recession began.

Clearly, empowering employees to take control of their mental health has never been more important, yet most people would rather hide a lack of mental wellbeing than admit they need help.

According to Dr Wolfgang Seidl, executive director of employee assistance programme provider The Validium Group, employers could be doing much more to prevent acute problems like stress and anxiety from escalating into long-term chronic mental health issues such as depression.

 Warning signs

“Most employees will emit clear warning signs before they become too stressed to function,” he says.

“These range from emotional warning signs, such as out of character mood swings, tearfulness and aggressive outbursts, to cognitive warning signs, including decreased concentration, to behavioural warning signs, such as reduced eye contact and decreased social interaction.”

Expert’s view: Wolfgang Seidl, executive director, The Validium Group

What are the biggest challenges?

Each and every individual’s reaction to stress is unique, with some ‘stress junkies’ positively thriving under increased pressure and deadlines others would gladly call in sick to avoid. One employee’s development opportunity is another’s breakpoint, so it’s essential to observe people as individuals.

What should you avoid doing?

Conducting a stress survey will most certainly help you identify where your people are most under pressure and at risk. Without appropriate support mechanisms already in place, however, a survey on its own can create more problems than it solves – not least because once you know you have a problem, you become legally obliged to do something about it. When planning a survey, always start planning the next steps in terms of support mechanisms.

Top tips

  • Give back control – it’s those employees who feel least empowered that are most likely to become sick from stress. Research shows the more you judge people against clearly defined outcomes and the less you micro-manage them, the better their performance and resilience to stress.
  • Equip managers – coach managers on how to recognise the early warning signs of stress so they can recognise when a member of their team might not be coping and put policies in place to encourage them to act to support the individual, rather than turn a blind eye, as is typical.
  • Keep talking – try to maintain a caring dialogue with absent employees, through an appropriate intermediary if necessary, rather than cut off all contact for fear that this will be seen as pressurising the individual to return to work.


So what should HR do if they think they’ve identified an employee entering into crisis?

“It’s all to easy to assume that it’s being intrusive to say anything and hope the problem will go away by itself,” says Seidl. “Instead, take the employee to one side and talk to them in an empathetic manner to identify the underlying causes for the symptoms.”

It’s important to differentiate between those employees who can easily be helped to overcome stress, with things like time management development and clearer objectives, and those entering into some kind of crisis. In the event that the employee is struggling with a serious issue, be it workplace bullying or the breakdown of a relationship, it’s important not to get too close. “Your aim isn’t to counsel the employee or become their only confidante. It’s about identifying the underlying issue so that they can be directed towards appropriate help,” explains Seidl.

If the employee feels unable to talk, it’s essential to get them to open up to someone they trust, be it a friend outside work or a fully trained counsellor at the end of an employee assistance helpline.

Facilitate recovery

For those employees struggling with a personal issue that can’t easily be fixed, but who are genuinely motivated to get better, consider paying for a clinical assessment. Seidl says: “Most GPs would be the first to admit they lack the understanding of the workplace required to help someone through a mental illness while they remain in work.”

A proper clinical assessment will provide practical advice on reasonable adjustments that can be made to accelerate the individual’s recovery and even give a prognosis for their recovery, with and without treatment, to enable you to make a business case for a short course of counselling. Seidl says it makes good business sense: “If someone is struggling to sleep after a relationship breakdown, just knowing that giving them a later shift can be enough to keep them in work can be incredibly valuable information for both the individual and the business.”

If the stress is due to a workplace issue, such as bullying or team exclusion, put initiatives in place, such as manager training or diversity development, to prevent reoccurrences. Wherever possible try to keep the employee in work by adjusting their working conditions to help them cope.

If you only do five things:

1. Don’t ignore the warning signs

2. Be sensitive when approaching employees

3. Look for the root of the stress

4. Facilitate expert care

5. Consider a range of options for help.

Further information

  • Coping with work stress, a review and critique, Philip J. Dewe, Michael P. O’Driscoll, Cary L. Cooper, Wiley-Blackwell, £75 ISBN10: 0470997664
  • Stress at work: management and prevention, Jeremy Stranks, Butterworth-Heinemann, £24.99 ISBN: 0750665424
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