Stress in the workplace
BA (Hons), MSc.
Associate Member CIEHF
Due to the current situation with COVID-19, stress management and mental health awareness are more important than ever. We are all facing many challenges as we come to terms with a new way of working and living. Working from home, job security and financial worries are adding to the already considerable levels of stress many of us feel.
Working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18
Source: Labour Force Survey (LFS)
What is stress?
‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. HSE
As far as occupational health and safety are concerned, stress occurs at work when the job demands conflict with the employees’ resources, time and/or abilities.
Benefits of stress
Some stress can be a good thing. A small amount can help you tackle tasks more efficiently, keeping you engaged, vital and ready to address new difficulties in the work environment. With small amounts of stress, we can all become more confident and more resilient.
Another good thing about stress – it can help forge close bonds. By opening up and connecting with other people, we derive endless benefits to both our physical and our mental health.
So while some work-related stress is to be expected, and even welcomed, when it becomes chronic or prolonged, it becomes a big problem.
When there is too much stress
Extended periods of stress can affect performance and productivity and seriously impact on our health. Increasingly, the demands on the individual at work reach out into home and personal life
Some common causes of stress at work include:
- The fear of being laid off /job security.
- A toxic work environment where harassment or bullying is rife.
- A blame culture leading to fear of making a mistake.
- Equipment not working properly.
- Insufficient training for work tasks.
- Poor working environment – light heat cold, ventilation noise, space.
- Staff and/or budget cutbacks leading to excessively high workloads and longer working hours.
- Pressure to meet increasing demands and tight deadlines.
- Lack of control over work.
- Poor working relationships, feeling isolated, undervalued or underappreciated.
- Poor management and lack of support.
Recognising someone might be under too much stress
There are some common symptoms long term stress can cause; being aggressive, overly emotional or tearful, or lacking concentration at work can be signs someone is not coping well with their stress levels. Inevitability this affects their work – lack of concentration leads to poor productivity.
Physical symptoms of prolonged exposure to stressful situations include headaches, palpitations, sleep disturbances, depression and anxiety leading to serious long term impacts on health.
It is incumbent on employers to think about managing stress and helping lower stress levels. Alleviating stress brings many benefits to employees and to employers.
Of employees agreed that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them
Research conducted by Mind
Why stress management works
One of the major benefits of stress management to employers is can dramatically lessen episodes of staff sickness and absenteeism.
By lowering levels of stress in your workplace you can:
- Increase a person’s productivity at work.
- Enjoy a more positive work environment.
- Improve relations between staff and management.
- Improve staff punctuality.
- Lower staff turnover.
Preventing and reducing workplace stress requires organisational level interventions, i.e. structural changes such as work schedules, the working environment, and psychological changes such as support systems.
“a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones.” World Health Organisation
A happier workforce is a more productive workforce. Think about the small changes you can make. for instance:
- Provide ergonomic workstations and make sure staff know about good posture and workstation set up.
- Encourage regular breaks. DSE users should stand up and stretch at least every hour. Tools like desktop tickers and apps are useful for sending reminders to staff to ‘stretch your legs, take a break, check your posture’ etc.
- Set a good example – eat lunch away from your desk, take a lunchtime walk.
- Introduce a break-out area to encourage staff to take regular breaks.
- Communicate with staff and listen to grievances and concerns.
- Consider team building or social activities.
- Carry out stress awareness training.
NICE recommends that an employer could arrange for a detailed stress assessment with a stress management specialist if an individual is experiencing high stress levels.
We can’t and shouldn’t eradicate stress completely. But work-related stress accounts for 44% of work-related ill health so we must recognise it is a serious problem and take some steps to reduce or control it. We must take some responsibility for looking after our own stress levels and we should expect or demand our employers do the same by introducing some changes in working culture and practice. It is incumbent on us all to work towards a better and healthier workplace culture, after all, ultimately we all benefit.