Despite many employers turning to yoga and mindfulness classes to help relieve stress among their workforce, HSE’s Robert McGreal believes employers would see more success by following his organisation’s Management Standards.
It seems that for many, stress has become part of the job. In fact, the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) latest statistics show over half a million workers across the UK have suffered work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. What’s more, it is one of the two most commonly reported causes of sickness absence.
Add to this the estimated loss of 12.5 million working days a year, and you can see why employers are looking for ways to manage work-related stress. For instance, some organisations are offering yoga and in-house meditation classes to help their workforce de-stress, or resilience and mindfulness training to help staff cope with pressure at work. But are these alone actually effective in preventing or managing work-related stress?
At some point, we have all said “I’m feeling a bit stressed” or “I’m stressed out”, but what do we really mean?
Stress can be defined in a number of ways but at the HSE, we define it as: “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.
Our definition distinguishes between stress and pressure as it is generally accepted the latter can be considered good for us and can act as a motivational force helping us achieve our goals. But it is when this pressure becomes excessive over a prolonged period, with no recovery time, that it can lead to stress, anxiety and depression and physical health conditions including heart problems, stroke, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and obesity.
Choosing the best approach
It is no surprise that an industry has built up to create solutions to work-related stress. Its focus tends to be on wellbeing; promoting mindfulness and personal resilience; helping people already experiencing problems.
As a result, some organisations are now drawing up wellbeing strategies and encouraging their employees to take up yoga or meditation and to just eat better and exercise as a means to de-stress.
These solutions do not remove the cause of the work-related stress, meaning they cannot solve the wider issues in the workplace. If you teach someone coping techniques but put them back in the same toxic job, the problem will continue to build and continue to produce an adverse reaction. If you remove the cause, you reduce the individual’s stress and can also protect others doing the same work.
The HSE last year launched a health and work programme, the Go Home Healthy campaign, which aims to encourage employers to take health risks as seriously as safety ones.
Addressing work-related stress is one of the campaign’s three priorities and we are proactively targeting employers to raise awareness of their legal duty to assess the risk from work-related stress.
We’re encouraging employers to tackle any risks and also highlight the practical measures they can take to prevent and manage stress in their organisations.
Managing workplace stress
It’s important to engage with staff to find out what and where the issues causing them to feel stressed are and come up with solutions.
To help organisations manage work-related stress, HSE developed its Management Standards approach. These standards cover six key areas of work:
Demands: workload, work patterns and the work environment.
- talking about workload with your team and develop work plans;
- making plans for avoiding pressure at expected busy times and holiday periods; renegotiating targets if there’s too much work;
- ensuring everyone understands their role and has the necessary skills and equipment to do it.
Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
- talking about levels of control;
- allowing staff a level of control over what they do and how. For example, the pace of the work;
- involving staff in decision making where it affects their role.
Support: the encouragement and resources provided by the organisation, line management, and colleagues.
- providing constructive and supportive feedback;
- taking into account people’s home situation; being flexible where people need time for hospital appointments and allowing phased return from long-term sickness absence;
- holding regular team meetings and discussing issues that may be causing problems.
If you teach someone coping techniques but put them back in the same toxic job, the problem will continue to build and continue to produce the ‘adverse reaction’”
Relationships: promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
- having a policy for what behaviour is expected which clearly identifies unacceptable behaviour;
- having a process for reporting such behaviours;
- being aware of staff that may need additional support, for example lone workers.
Role: whether people understand their role within the organisation.
- providing clear job descriptions and keeping these updated;
- explaining how each role fits into the organisation and contributes to its goals;
- avoiding conflicting or competing demands or targets.
Change: how organisational change is managed and communicated.
- consulting with staff at an early stage and keep talking throughout;
- talking to individuals directly if they will be affected by a decision, getting their views and ideas and explaining timescales;
- letting staff know the purpose of the change and what it will achieve.
This approach helps employers focus on the underlying causes of stress and how to prevent them. The key to tackling work-related stress is engaging with the workforce, getting to the root of the issue, identifying the key stressors, and working to agree practical solutions.
Stress can affect anyone at any level in an organisation, so if employees are feeling stressed they should be encouraged to speak to someone – whether that’s a friend, their manager, GP or occupational health team.