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Stress at work: a simple guide

Stress at work is a major problem. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that around 828,000 workers in Great Britain suffered work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20. This caused 17.9 million lost working days,1 up from 12.8 million working days in 2018/19.2

This guide covers workplace stress — what it is, how to tackle it and when to seek help.

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What is workplace stress?

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To some degree, we’ve all probably experienced it. That buzz in the back of your head as a deadline approaches or emails pile up. Or you might feel uneasy in your stomach as an important presentation or pitch looms.

Much of this is perfectly natural and a little of it can actually do you good — this is known as ‘optimal stress’.3 The shot of cortisol and adrenaline induced by moderate stress can actually increase output and productivity.

However, the risks are when we pass our personal threshold for stress and never ‘come down’ from the peak.
Eventually, this can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms (such as increased alcohol/substance use or compulsive eating)4 and on to burnout followed by sickness absence.5

What causes stress at work?

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Recognising and knowing how to tackle stress is something all companies, big or small, need to prepare for. However, ideally employees would never become so stressed that it caused a situation that needs to be acknowledged and tackled.

It’s an old saying, but very relevant — prevention truly is better than cure. By the time an employee is so stressed it becomes a condition and caused sickness absence, the cost for them is already too great.

That’s why it’s important to know what the causes of stress are, so you can act on them early.

According to the HSE, the top causes of stress at work are:

  • Being unable to cope with the demands of their job
  • Lack of control over how to do their work
  • Lack of information and support
  • Difficulties with relationships at work, including bullying
  • Not fully understanding their role and responsibilities
  • Feeling unengaged as the business goes through change.6

Why is stress a problem?

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As mentioned, in small doses and with proper recovery periods, stress can boost productivity. However, employees facing long-term, chronic stress can quickly become too unwell to work. This is too big a price to pay.

Not only can it lead to an employee or employees suffering sickness absence — which itself unacceptable for a preventable problem — but excessive stress can cause a big drop in morale and productivity.

When you consider that 46% of respondents to a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) survey listed stress as a top three cause of long-term sickness absence in 2020,7 it’s easy to see why this can impact employers’ bottom lines as well as wreaking havoc for employees.

Presenteeism and leavism

Almost half (46%) of employees surveyed by The Society of Occupational Medicine said that they felt more pressure to be ‘present’ since working from home during the pandemic. As a result, more than one third of employees continued working at home even when unwell, often due to fears about being singled out for redundancy if they weren’t seen as productive.8

Known as presenteeism, a problem that increased during the pandemic, this sees employees feeling compelled to show up even work whilst unwell, despite not being able to perform their best.

Meanwhile, another phenomenon is on the rise: so-called leaveism. This is refers to three key employee behaviours:

  • Using allocated annual leave to take time off instead of sick days
  • Taking work home (or continuing to work after hours for those working remotely) to complete work that cannot be done during working hours
  • Working whilst on annual leave to ensure they don’t fall behind.9

A whopping 60% of people surveyed by CIPD said that they’d noticed employees working outside contracted hours to get work done in the last 12 months.

Tackling stress at work

Employers with more than five employees have a legal duty to protect employees from stress by conducting a written stress risk assessment.10

Yet despite this, less than 1 in 3 respondents to a CIPD survey whose company had experienced leaveism said their organisation was doing anything to discourage it.11

However, many bodies prescribe going beyond a mere assessment. In its 2020 report Mental health at work 2020: Building back responsibly,12 Business in the Community (BITC) published a call to action for employers that recommended employers elevate mental health and safety to be on par with physical health.

It also endorsed companies updating their policies on tough issues surrounding mental health such as domestic abuse, suicide and bereavement to encourage conversations around them.

With all this in mind, how exactly can companies recognise, monitor and help stressed employees?

Spotting the signs

In the first instance, it’s important to recognise the signs of stress.13,14

These include:

  • Becoming easily agitated or frustrated
  • An uncharacteristically bad mood
  • Avoiding colleagues/personal interactions
  • A loss of confidence/self-esteem
  • Reduced engagement
  • Forgetfulness and difficulty focusing
  • Exhibiting worsened judgement
  • Being uncharacteristically pessimistic/negative
  • Arriving late
  • Not taking lunch breaks
  • If they smoke, increased smoking breaks
  • Missing deadlines
  • Nervous behaviours such as nail biting, fidgeting or pacing
  • Tiredness
  • Becoming more prone to colds and infections
  • Rapid weight fluctuations.

Unfortunately, hybrid working could make it more difficult for employers to spot employees struggling with their mental wellbeing due to reduced physical contact.

It’s here an offering such as Unum’s Wellbeing Check could prove invaluable. This provides a 1-2-1 coaching session with an employee struggling with their wellbeing, whether the issue is related to personal, work or even COVID-19 concerns.

Stop workplace stress in its tracks

The first priority should be ensuring your company has a proper health and wellbeing policy. However, doing so can be daunting.

If you’re not sure where to start, Unum’s mental health and wellbeing review can help. This examines your current mental health and wellbeing strategy in line with the government’s Thriving at Work and the Mental Health at Work Commitment. We then provide an action plan of suggested improvements and 12 months of support and check-ins to help implement them.

Upskilling line managers is also crucial so they can spot signs of stress, be a sympathetic ear for employees experiencing it and know how to react to nip the problem in the bud.

With Unum, our range of On Course workshops form part of our focus on illness prevention. Every workshop aimed at line managers is CPD-accredited, with topics including:

  • Mental health and the workplace
  • Stress awareness
  • Sickness and absence management
  • Long term conditions.

They include online learning e-modules, such as Stress Awareness. Here, you’ll learn about recognising stress, spotting the signs, managing it and your role as a line manager in keeping you and your team healthy.
For more information, email oncourse@unum.co.uk.

Tackling stress if it occurs

The overwhelming message from all this is that stress at work to the point it affects an employee’s wellbeing isn’t inevitable. Indeed, it’s preventable.

However, if stress occurs, it’s vital to support your employees through it. Internally, you can:

  • Remind staff to take periods of rest and recovery, which includes lunch breaks
  • Check employees take leave they’re entitled to. Annual leave is a health and safety requirement; it’s not just to jet off around the world and lie on beaches (as much as we’d like it to be!)
  • Ensure managers lead by example and take their own leave without resorting to leaveism from their sun lounger
  • Encourage healthy use of digital technology so people can fully switch off outside work hours rather than remaining ‘always on’
  • Be aware of workloads and intervene if an employee is facing unreasonable demands
  • Consider your work environment — are there distractions you can remove or changes that would reduce stress?

You could also choose to use experts from outside your organisation to help if you have such resources available when an employee starts to feel stressed.

Many employee benefits, such as the Group Risk policies on offer from Unum, come with added-value services that offer a wealth of support in this area.

For example, Help@hand, the health and wellbeing service from Unum,* offers access to five key services all via one simple app. This includes mental health support from qualified counsellors and an employee assistance programme from LifeWorks*, which provides life, money and wellbeing support on a range of issues.

Stress in a post-pandemic world

It’s also important to recognise that stress may also rear its ugly head in new and different ways than before COVID-19 struck as we shift back to the workplace post-pandemic.

For example, there could be increased fear of meeting people, either through concerns about infection or simply just because going out and meeting people is something very many of us have been actively discouraged from doing by the government for so long. This could lead to social anxiety.

According to CIPD, who undertook a survey of common causes of stress during the pandemic, the most common pandemic-related stressors for workers included:

  • Fear of contagion in the workplace or on the commute
  • Non-work factors (e.g. personal illness/health issues)
  • Poor work/life balance due to working remotely due to COVID-19
  • Difficulties with relationships at work.15

Policies for tackling workplace stress should evolve with the times and COVID-19 will require a major evolution. However, if every employer put robust preventative measures in place, including those adjusted to take into account the pandemic, as well as offering avenues to treat stress should it occur, that headline figure for work-related stress absences may start to go down. This will benefit employers and employees alike.