Stress management – why bother?

Key points

  • For some, stress management is simply about compliance: ticking the health and safety boxes and having a stress policy to avoid tribunal or personal injury claims.
  • For the more enlightened, embracing stress management makes business sense: better physical and mental performance increases productivity and enhances employee morale.
  • Well-crafted health and wellbeing programmes for employees are an easy route into more tricky workplace issues, such as bullying, performance management and reducing absenteeism.

Every employer survey aimed at targeting the main workplace issues points to the same problem: stress.

Most employers have a policy many have done stress audits a smaller number have confidential employee assistance helplines. But the problem persists.

The recent debate over sicknotes and well notes has highlighted the issue yet again. So why are employers not cracking the stress problem?

Two camps

Employers who attempt to deal with stress fall into two camps: ‘the box ticker’ and ‘the enlightened’.

Stress is really no different from the diversity agenda: at one end of the spectrum it is about presenting statistics if the need arises at the other, it is about productivity and the retention of staff.

The box ticker has the policy, and may have conducted an audit indicating the key causes of stress in the workplace (and pity the employer who conducts the stress audit, gathers the evidence and then does nothing about it). But a dusty policy without life breath in an organisation is not worth the paper it is written on.

The enlightened, meanwhile, has adopted stress management initiatives that are much more creative and go to the heart of performance management and the culture of an organisation.

Some of the more interesting initiatives I have seen (and this is not restricted to large employers) include:

  • Holiday monitoring – ensuring that staff are taking at least the Working Time Regulations minimum
  • A formal relationship with stress counsellors or occupational health for referral purposes
  • On-site gyms or gym sponsorship – often tied to monitored gym usage
  • Duvet days – up to two days per year as personal time.

Productivity benefits

Health gurus are constantly telling us that better physical and mental performance increases productivity. But how does that work alongside a 24/7 service delivery culture?

The answer must be that employees are encouraged to find some time during their day to take care of themselves so the employer can take better care of the business.

Of course, the best stress management initiatives are never going to get rid of the tactical stress card – the employee about to be disciplined or sacked who waves the sicknote citing stress. However, having a range of initiatives in place does allow an employer to manage the ‘tactical stressor’ more proactively.

Too many employers regard the tactical stressor as untouchable – it’s ‘tools down’ until the employee is fit to return.

But it is often the case that the cause of the ‘stress’ is the disciplinary or dismissal process itself – so pushing ahead with the process in a robust yet sensitive manner can alleviate the situation more effectively in the medium term.

Management plan

Having a systematic plan for dealing with the genuinely stressed employee can force the tactical stressor down an established path that moves at a pace to suit the employer – and proactive stress management does not mean a process has to stand still.

Stress management can work. But it takes significant management time: training the business to recognise situations likely to cause stress, identifying the symptoms and how to manage the consequences.

So why bother? Ultimately it is about the fight to be employer of choice and the bottom line.

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