Six steps to tackle employee stress

With the TUC’s biennial survey of safety representatives identifying stress as the most common health and safety problem in the workplace, Laura Chamberlain looks at what employers can do to tackle the issue.

According to XpertHR’s 2010 stress management survey, 44% of employers provide training relevant to stress management, down from 68% the year before. As part of Stress Awareness Day, employment relations service Acas is encouraging employers to be aware of their responsibilities towards employee wellbeing.

Acas’s director of operational policy, Jane Bird, advises how employers can manage stress in their organisations in six key points:

1. Line managers are vital to combating stress

Employee wellbeing is not something that managers can ignore. Managers have a duty of care to their employees and there can be serious legal consequences if they do not take action.

Line managers are vital elements in both preventing and managing stress as they are a connection between their team and the company. They see employees on a day-to-day basis and should be able to pick up signs of irregular behaviour that may indicate anxiety.

If one employee is stressed, it can have an impact on the whole team and similarly, if one employee isn’t pulling their weight it will increase the work load and pressure on other workers.

Bird warns: “If a manager doesn’t address these issues then other team members can become very disengaged, stressed and even resentful.”

2. Communication is essential

If you communicate with your team then you can reduce levels of stress. You don’t have to introduce a complex strategy, just talk to people, be approachable and get to know the people you manage. With public sector cuts and companies downsizing across the UK, employees are often, understandably, concerned about the security of their jobs.

People often find uncertainty harder to deal with than bad news, and a lack of information will have a huge impact on stress levels. It is important for employers to communicate what is happening within the company. If managers do not know, they should tell their team this and keep them updated about future developments.

“Where there is a lack of information, employees can be relied on to make up that gap with rumour or gossip and that can often be very destabilising and stressful for the team,” says Bird.

3. Know your people

If you know how individuals and teams usually act, then you will quickly pick up on signs that they are not coping. Employees who are snapping at each other or becoming very distracted may be suffering from stress, and further down the line this can impact on their attendance as well as their productivity.

If employees feel that they have somebody at work who is willing to listen and support them, then this will ease their stress and help them to do their jobs.

Bird adds: “How managers deal with stress will obviously depend on the circumstances or the individuals concerned, but very often it takes no more than a manager taking that person aside in a private place and saying: ‘I noticed you haven’t been yourself, is there anything I can do to help?'”

4. Treat all employees well

In the current economic climate, a lot of organisations will be making redundancies. However, how employers deal with staff who are leaving is more than a matter of the company’s statutory obligations.

Employees left behind will observe how their former colleagues are treated and will add this to their concerns about job security.

Bird suggests: “Talk to the remaining team and say: ‘There were 10 of us and now there are five. We need to do these things. How can we work together as a team to do this?'”

This will allow staff to feel involved in the management process. If line managers impose their ideas on employees without consulting them, they risk creating higher levels of anxiety within the team.

5. Maintain contact with absent employees

If stress becomes unmanageable for an individual, it is possible that they will end up on long-term sick leave. If you have a culture of support for staff in the workplace, this will help keep employees in the office.

However, if they do go absent, keeping contact with them is very important. Bird says: “Once an employee decides they can’t cope with stress and goes off sick, there becomes an huge chasm between them and the workplace. The fear of coming back can be incredibly difficult.

“If it does get to that stage it is vital that the organisation maintains contact with individuals to help their return to work, otherwise there is a real risk they will never return.”

6. Refer the Health and Safety Executive’s management standards

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) management standards help companies evaluate the risks of stress within their organisation, outline procedures that can help manage stress in future and define the characteristics of an organisation where the risks from work-related stress are being effectively managed.

Bird says: “This is a good place to start for employers who can spend time and resources on it. You can use them to identify where your ‘hot spots’ are as an organisation.

“As long as employers then take action and involve employees in that, then any changes are more likely to be successful.”

For more information, read a guide to work-related stress and the law by Acas, CIPD, the HSE and Health Work Wellbeing.

XpertHR subscribers can refer to Health and safety: Stress at work policy and procedure.

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