IN a year like no other, it is no surprise that stress levels in UK workplaces are reaching record highs.
An illuminating report by Acas found that in 2019/20 the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety reached 828,000, resulting in 17.9 million days lost – significantly higher than the previous period.
It’s believed that the upheaval of Covid-19 and demand for services will have catalysed a further spike in cases. In fact, a recent CIPD survey found that 37 per cent of organisations have noticed an increase in stress-related absences this past year.
Employers have a duty of care and must do all they reasonably can to support employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.
So what can you do to manage workplace stress?
Spotting the signs
First, you need to be able to identify signs of stress. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says stress is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them.” This definition makes the important distinction between stress, which has negative health implications, and pressure, which can be a motivator, such as a deadline in work.
Stress affects people differently – what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether an employee can cope.
The difficulty, of course, is knowing when pressure becomes a stressor. In short, pressure is a necessary part of getting things done, while stress is the negative result of excessive pressure; in other words, where there are too many demands and not enough resources to meet them. In this way, a demanding work environment can easily become stressful without strategies in place to manage stress in the workplace.
Practical tips to manage workplace stress
The HSE points to six management standards which can be used as a starting point to review within your practice. They are:
- Demands – are there issues with workload, work patterns, etc?
- Control – how much say do people have in the way they do their work?
- Support – do employees receive the encouragement, support and resources they need from the organisation, line management and colleagues?
- Relationships – are you promoting a positive working culture? Are you dealing with conflict and unacceptable behaviour effectively? This is important given the Acas findings.
- Role – do people understand their role? Are responsibilities and expectations clear? Are people working in conflicting roles and therefore working against each other?
- Change – how does the organisation manage and communicate change? Upheaval and uncertainty can lead to anxiety and stress – this is obviously hugely relevant at the moment.
Risk assessment is a valuable tool when it comes to managing all sorts of workplace health and safety risks, and stress is no different. A stress risk assessment will follow a similar approach to other types of risk assessment.
However, while traditional risk assessments focus on a specific task or environment, stress risk assessments will look more broadly across the organisation and will involve some unique components to specifically target work-related stress. These may include talking to staff individually and reviewing absence records.
Encourage positive mental health
Consider drawing up a practice mental health strategy. It may be useful to schedule regular one-to-ones between managers and team members, appointing mental health “champions” or arranging mental health awareness training/workshops.
In some cases, when dealing with stress in the workplace, occupational health support may be required to get the employee the assistance they need. They can also offer useful guidance to the practice about what stressors have caused absence and what the practice can do to support a return or a meaningful discussion. Clear written consent must be obtained before any referral and the employees may choose to see the report prior to it being sent to the practice.
- Be proactive about looking for ways to reduce stress in your team – don’t just dismiss it as “part of the job”.
- Ignoring stress could negatively affect team performance and lead to wider problems such as increased sickness absence or grievances.
- Make sure the practice team feel comfortable raising concerns about their health or wellbeing.
- Seek help from organisations such as Acas or the HSE.
- Contact the MDDUS employment law advisory team on firstname.lastname@example.org