Cartoon man sat at desk to illustrate article how to manage work related stress

How do you manage work-related stress?

Work-related stress – we all experience it, but how do you know when it becomes an issue that you need to address?

Stress is a fact of life, it is a natural response to stimulation, and we all need a certain amount of stress in our lives.  Problems arise when we encounter more stress than we are able to deal with, and when the pressures and demands of work become too much, that leads to work-related stress.

According to the HSE, stress, depression, or anxiety accounts for 51% of all work-related ill-health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work related ill-health.

Stress in the workplace is a hazard that needs to be identified and managed just like any other hazard. It may seem difficult for employers to uncover, identify and manage but there are some great tools and schemes out there to help you.

Stress – the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.

How to spot stress in the workplace?

Before you carry out any surveys or get consultants in to determine whether you have a problem or not, you may already have signs that some of your team are suffering from work related stress. Have you spotted any of the following your workplace?

  • Arguments and conflicts between team members
  • High staff turnover
  • Increased levels of sickness absence
  • People habitually arriving late for work
  • Individuals acting a bit differently from usually, e.g. mood swings, lack of commitment, loss of confidence

All these could be indicative of a work-related stress problem that you need to give some attention to.

What if we don’t think we have any work-related stress cases?

Then you are in a great position – but don’t rest on your laurels just yet. Work-related stress cases can bubble up for many reasons, and as a responsible employer you have a duty to ensure that you have taken reasonable steps to minimize excessive stress before it happens. Time for my Granny’s favourite saying again – an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure!

A note of caution – recent claims for compensation for people suffering work-related stress have ruled that where stress is ‘foreseeable’, action must be taken to limit the problem. It would be very rare for any organisation not to have some incidences of work-related stress, so all organisations (whether they current have any issues or not) would be well advised to have plans in place to manage it.

What can be done to manage work-related stress?

Guess what?! Its back to our old friend, the risk assessment – you knew it would be, right? You already know the hazard, so you need a way of evaluating the risks, spotting any problem areas and dealing with them effectively.

Sounds like a tough challenge, but there is help out there to tackle this.

The HSE have prepared a set of Management Standards that represent the ‘gold standard’ of workplace management. These Management Standards are aspirational, and by comparing your organisation against these standards you can start to identify the any risk areas that may lead to work-related stress.

Alongside the management Standards, the HSE have published a workbook to guide organisations through the process of tackling work-related stress by using the management standards approach.

What areas do the Management Standards look at?

The Management Standards look at six key-areas of management in the workplace, which if not appropriately managed can lead to poor health and wellbeing, higher sickness absence rates and lower productivity. The HSE takes a pragmatic view, and Organisations are not expected to meet all aspects of these standards immediately, but to have plans in place to work towards these standards.

The areas covered are:

Work-related Stress Management standards, demands, control, support, relationships, role and change

How do we carry out a work-related stress risk assessment?

Your work-related stress risk assessment follows the same 5 steps to risk assessment methodology as other risk assessments. By taking this methodical approach, you can demonstrate rigor and thoroughness in how you take work-related stress, and the steps can be repeated so you can measure how you are progressing as an organisation.

Step 1: Plan

Before you launch into the risk assessment process, it is important to get the buy-in of people at all levels of your organisation. Talking about stress can be emotive, you may have people who are under a considerable amount of stress and are worried they are going to be ‘found out’, and at the other end of the scale you may have people who ‘don’t believe in stress’. You can gain buy-in through a series of activities, such as team talks, information sessions, appointing a senior leader to spearhead the project, putting together a steering group of people from across the organisation and many other ways. The key thing is to find what works best for your people so that tackling work related stress is not viewed with scepticism or fear.

Step 2: Identify who might be harmed and how

You will already have a wealth of information for this step. To spot where you might have issues, look at sickness absence data, productivity, staff turnover, appraisals, complaints, and any staff surveys you have previously carried out to try and identify any hot-spots. You are looking for roles or departments that a showing areas of concern that need to be focussed on. It’s a great idea to carry out a survey as part of your risk assessment process, to get a view of how your people are feeling. This gives you a baseline position to start from and repeating the survey periodically can help you measure the effectiveness of any plans you put in place to manage work-related stress.

A great way to do this is to use the recently launched tool from the HSE, the Stress Indicator Tool which allows people in your organisation to give you feedback anonymously. The questions are built around the Management Standards but can be tailored to meet the requirements of your workplace.

Step 3: Evaluate the risks

When you have gathered your available data and got the results from your staff survey, its time to talk to your people. Consult with employees to confirm your initial findings, you can do this by talking with focus groups or having individual conversations. Again, you need to reassure people you are not looking for problems, but areas where the organisation can make positive changes for the benefit of everyone. Communicate the results of your findings to all your people, they will be naturally curious to know the outcome and you demonstrate that you are doing something positive and the staff surveys are not just a pointless exercise.

Step 4: Develop an action plan

Prioritise the problem areas identified in steps 2 and 3 and develop plans to make changes to tackle the issues raised. Using the Management Standards as your guide, look at the proactive steps you can implement to address the key areas of concern. There may be some strategic changes in the organisation, or specific improvements in individual teams – the important thing is to link the actions back to the results of your evaluations so that they are genuinely based around managing work-related stress and will not be seen by the sceptics in your organisation as “another way for management to push through their agenda”. Also, people who have raised genuine concerns will need to see that they are being taken seriously, if not you risk undermining the whole process and actually making things worse. The overall action plan should be owned by senior person in the organisation, with enough authority to make sure it is carried out. All actions need to be SMART actions and their progress tracked.

Step 5: Monitor and review

You have your action plan and designated responsible person for delivering the plan – that’s great! The next step is to integrate this work-related stress risk management approach into your organisations policies and procedures. Make sure you keep an eye on the action plan, determine the effectiveness of any changes you have made, monitor your key indicators of work-related stress, repeat your staff surveys periodically and keep going through steps 1 to 5 in a cycle. That way you will demonstrate to the management team and all members of the organisation that you take managing work-related stress seriously, and more importantly you will be making real changes that make your employees happier at work, maintain high productivity and increase staff retention and morale.

Helping somebody suffering from work-related stress

If during your risk assessment process, or separate to this process, an employee lets you know that they are suffering from work-related stress you need to have things in place to help and support that person.

It may have taken a great deal of courage for them to open up, so the first thing to do is not to minimise or dismiss how they are feeling. Listen to what they have to say, let them air whatever difficulties or grievances they have, and don’t immediately jump in and try to ‘fix’ things, you need to make sure the person feels heard and understood, and not fobbed off.

Where appropriate, and in agreement with the individual, involve other support such as HR, Occupational Health, employee representative or union reps. You may want to encourage the individual to see their GP if they haven’t already.

Appoint somebody to take responsibility for progressing the report or complaint of work-related stress, and to support the induvial and the organisation to make the adjustments needed to resolve any issues.

Remember though, it is not your job and an employer to diagnose or treat stress, just to do what you can to minimise the risk and support your staff.

So, what is the key message to take away?

Work-related stress is a hazard in the workplace that needs to be identified and eliminated or controlled just like any other hazard. By approaching work-related stress using the 5 step to risk assessment methodology, you put a structured and measurable process in place to evaluate and manage what can feel like an intangible risk. Tackling stress can be an emotive task, and by gaining buy-in and leadership across all levels of the organisation you can make positive changes that people believe and make a huge contribution to the wellbeing of people at work. Afterall, we all want to be happy at work, to do a good job and feel valued for our contribution.

Want to learn more about managing work-related stress or help with your assessments?

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