Recognising the signs
It's vital that employers are tuned in to how their employees are feeling. The symptoms of stress can appear in a number of ways, but here are some typical signs.
Emotional Your employee may seem sensitive to criticism, be irritable, have an uncharacteristic loss of confidence or self-esteem, and be less engaged.
Cognitive You may notice that your employee is making more mistakes than usual, is having problems making decisions, or is not able to concentrate.
Behavioural This could include things like arriving late, not taking lunch breaks, taking unofficial time off, not joining in with the team or office banter, or not hitting deadlines.
Physical Employees who are stressed sometime exhibit physical symptoms such as what seems like a constant cold, being tired at work, looking like they haven't made an effort with their appearance, or rapid weight loss or gain.
Coping with stress at work
Identifying a stressed employee is one thing, but helping them to cope with stress is quite another as they have no obligation to discuss their personal problems with managers. And with manager style and behaviour often cited as a major cause of workplace stress, managers clearly have a massive - and potentially tricky - role to play.
Acknowledging the problem exists is the first step. Understandably, many employers are worried about broaching the subject, being wrong or causing offence. And if the manager's actually the problem, a neutral third party is needed. A company's HR department typically provides an informal and independent sounding board.
Either the line manager or HR professional should ask the employee for a quiet word somewhere private and then let them know that they've noticed they've not been themselves and ask if they'd like to talk about it.
If they are willing, a meeting with HR could then be set up. The meeting should be confidential, non-threatening, open and provide an opportunity for the employee, the line manager and the HR professional to discuss and identify what support the business can offer to better help the employee to cope.
In an ideal world, this scenario wouldn't happen, but with increasingly busy lives it's a situation that employers are more and more likely to see. The good news is that there are things you can do to help reduce the incidence of stress-related problems arising in the workplace:
Effective communication channels between the workforce and managers go a long way to ensure people feel they have someone to talk to if their workload is spiralling out of control or they have other worries.
Ways of setting up good communication could include staff surveys, giving workers the opportunity to anonymously voice concerns about their jobs and even make suggestions as to how they would like to see management cut down on stress.
When it comes to how you deal with stress in the workplace, it probably goes without saying that a long-term strategy is preferable. That said, there are a number of shorter-term tactics that you can implement that can go a long way in helping you to tackle workplace stress, including:
- offering stress-management workshops which all staff are invited to and which focus on coping with stress at work. This will help ensure your affected employee doesn't feel like they are being singled out
- keeping an eye on staff holiday - if certain employees aren't using their full quota, gently remind them that they still have plenty of days left to take
- ensuring people can relax while on holiday by making sure other people are available to do their work
- being aware of workloads - spotting and intervening if you notice unreasonable demands being placed on any one employee
- making sure managers are reminded that 'thank you' goes a long way in making staff feeling appreciated
Once you've made a start on tackling stress in your workplace, it's worth considering a longer-term strategy. It'll take more time and effort to set-up than the shorter-term fixes, but the results should be worth it. Suggestions for a longer-term solution, include:
- Work environment: for example, are there distractions that you can remove, or changes that you can make to seating arrangements?
- Training: things like job shadowing, refresher training or a more formal course run externally, can all help employees feel more in control of their working lives.
- Reducing possible pressure: pressure is part and parcel of most jobs at some point, but to make sure it doesn't become a permanent fixture, consider offering flexible working, or working from an office nearer home.
- 3rd party help: if your company has one, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can provide independent, expert help (see Wellbeing section below)
- Self-help strategies: consider offering short courses on relaxation techniques and time management, or maybe introduce the option of an exercise class once a week. You could also advertise (on noticeboards or your intranet) websites that promote healthy eating, how to achieve a good work/life balance, etc.
The boss blues
We've all come across a cross-section of managers and a range of management styles in our careers. Some may be uncaring, inflexible or unsure. Others are nurturing, empathic and supportive. Either way, management style, good or bad has a direct effect on staff wellbeing and morale.
Training newly-appointed managers in man-management techniques can be one way to equip someone stepping into the role. Research4 also reveals the key management behaviours that can help reduce stress at work:
- Being responsible and showing respect - managers can understandably get annoyed with their staff, but it's up to them to manage their emotions and conduct all interactions in a considered manner.
- Managing and communicating workloads - let your staff know what's coming up so they can better manage their workloads. It's also good to take an open problem solving approach with employees - that collaborative approach will help empower employees.
- Treating people like individuals within the team - this includes having an open-door policy (we know it's easier said than done when you've got a lot on, but it really will help). Also, where you can, try to empathise with employees and offer flexibility in hours, workload, or location to help employees manage their individual work/life balance.
- Offer support with managing difficult situations: managing conflict is harder for some people than others. Where you see difficult situations arising, offer support and, if needs be, take responsibility for resolving the issue.