Under Pressure: Managing work related stress – Part 2

Pressure gaugeAs we discussed in the first part of our work related stress series, poor mental health – including stress and anxiety – is a major issue in the workplace, calculated to cost the UK economy £26 billion pounds each year. While stress itself is not an illness, excessive and prolonged stress can lead to serious mental and physical illness. In this second part, we discuss the practical steps you can take to help reduce excessive stress at work, hopefully making your workplace a healthier, happier environment for all.

Identify stress

It sounds obvious, but the first step you need to take is to identify if stress is a problem in your workplace. There are two key approaches to this, qualitative methods and quantitative methods.  Qualitative methods include:

  • Informal talks to staff – Gauging the mood of teams from walking through departments or having brief chats with staff can reveal more obvious signs of excessive pressure and when repeated on a regular basis changes are more easily noticed.
  • Performance appraisals – As part of the formal appraisal system an assessment of whether any symptoms of stress are emerging can be learned from these one-to-one discussions.
  • Managing attendance – Following sickness absence, it has become a best practice to invite employees to a ‘return-to-work’ interview.  From this any signs that the time off may have been because of work related stress can be identified and remedial action undertaken.

Quantitative methods include:

  • Sickness/absence data – An objective look at historical absence data can illustrate emerging trends and give an indication of where issues may be arising.
  • Productivity data – If performance appears lower than expected from an individual, team or department compared with other teams or previous years, closer inspection through discussions with employees may reveal factors affecting performance and causing work related stress.
  • Turnover – Exit interviews can be effective in revealing if work related stress is astress2 contributory factor to an employee leaving the organisation.  If some units have a higher level of turnover, this can point to stressors existing in that unit.
  • Accident statistics – Data on accidents and incidents can indicate where work related stress exists.  However, if, for example, near misses are not reported the reliability of the data is reduced.
  • Using a questionnaire – Distribution of questionnaires can give organisation-wide feedback on issues with stress.  If the same questions are asked year on year then trends from analysis of the responses can show where further resources need to be implemented.  Remember, the questionnaire should be written for the specific organisation and the confidentiality of responses made clear and fully observed.

Please note, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has produced tools and guidance to help employers tackle stress.

Who is at risk and how?

All employees can potentially be at risk from stress. At particular times, your staff may be at higher risk of stress.  For example, staff returning to work after a stress related illness or those who have challenging issues in their home life such as bereavement. Some examples of how workers might be affected include:

  • Some employees may be anxious about the workload or the reaction management may have at learning they are not coping.
  • Employees may be harmed by taking shortcuts to get a job done within a time limit. This could mean not wearing personal protective equipment, for example.
  • Company policy may be broken or even the law due to the lack of control an employee has over a process.  This could lead to anxiety and stress after the act due to guilt in knowing they acted inappropriately.
  • Long working hours at a computer can lead to musculoskeletal disorders if appropriate training and monitoring of good display screen equipment practices are not used. Stress can make symptoms worse.

Evaluate and act

Under the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999, you have a legal obligation to manage risks to employees’ health. Once you have evaluated the risk stress poses in your workplace, you should take proactive steps to manage these risks. Things to consider:

  • Make employees aware of the signs and symptoms of stress.  Involve staff in Stress awareness training.
  • Ensure managers develop the skills they feel are required to deal with stressed employees.  Further training should be discussed with higher management if managers feel it is necessary.
  • Involve health and safety representatives.
  • Consider providing training in ‘mental health first aid
  • Provide stress awareness campaigns – this could include poster campaigns.
  • Ensure job training is sufficient – stress can be caused by people having to struggle with a task because they lack the job knowledge or skills.
  • Take prompt action if you suspect an issue may involve stress or believe you have seen an employee showing signs of stress.
  • Give support – aim to eliminate the stressor.

What to do next…

It is vital you remember that managing workplace risks is not a quick fix. You have an ongoing legal duty to protect your employees, and you need to be prepared to monitor and review your staff to ensure their long term health and well being.

If you would like more information on any of the subjects covered in this guide, RoSPA’s Managing Stress & Violence Course is a comprehensive one-day in-company course that teaches delegates how to identify potential causes of stress and violence in the workplace and explores the various risk reduction methods that are available to minimise these problems.

For more information and tips on tackling work related stress, as well as news on all other aspects of occupational health and safety, please follow our Twitter feed @RoSPAWorkplace

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