Business management

Dealing with the realities of work-related stress

Here, we look at how business owners can help their employees, and themselves, tackle the effects of stress at work.

Most people will have experienced periods of stress at work, whether it’s the pressure to meet a deadline or solve a particular business problem. Some level of stress is often part of fulfilling a role.

But excess stress can be harmful to both individuals and a business, especially when there are additional pressures like the cost-of-living crisis. So companies should work to minimise the impacts of stress on employees to ensure a happy, productive workforce.

Causes of stress

There are many causes of workplace stress. According to psychologist and author Dr Sharie Coombes, contributing factors can include a lack of direct control over our workload, difficult peer relationships, staff shortages, or the conflicting demands of home and work.

Edwina Redhead, senior HR business partner at NatWest Mentor, says: “Stress becomes harmful when we don’t feel we have the resources to deal with everyday pressures. It can affect performance at work and lead to ill-health or long-term absence, which will affect both the business and the individual.”

Preventing stress

One way of ensuring stress doesn’t become endemic within a workplace is encouraging a culture of openness. Pressure at work can arise when employees don’t have a clear sense of what is expected, or the time to carry out a task effectively.

The key here is clarity – both when assigning work and ensuring that employees feel able to ask for additional information and support.

“Making sure that what we’re trying to achieve is clear, and that employees have the support and resources available to do that work, is the best way to set them up for success,” says Edwina.

The right policies

Part of the culture of openness means staff should feel safe and supported when communicating their needs, so businesses need to consider implementing effective stress and well-being policies so employees are confident they will be heard.

“It’s about creating a culture where people feel they can talk openly and they’re not going to be judged or perceived as failing and unable to cope,” explains Edwina.

“Having those policies in place, that mechanism, is really essential, and without this support there’s a danger that people will struggle.”

Spotting the signs

Many businesses also find it helpful to appoint a well-being champion to provide a clear, first point of contact for people’s concerns.

“Nominating someone people can go to if they need advice can be extremely effective,” says Edwina. “It’s also important to ensure that line managers are trained to spot warning signs.

“This is increasingly important as many businesses move to a remote-working model, and it can be hard for line managers to pick up when someone is struggling.”

These well-being champions should be schooled to look out for warning signs that employees might not be coping, says Dr Coombes.

“Some of the outward signs of being excessively stressed include being withdrawn and quiet, excess perfectionism over their work, missing deadlines or being visibly upset. Excessive stress can also present as anger or aggression,” she says.

Additional pressure

It goes without saying that the impacts of events like the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis are additional causes of stress for businesses of all sizes.

Employees and employers alike have reported feeling isolated, or have suffered additional stress due to changes in working practices, such as remote working.

Some of the outward signs of being excessively stressed include being withdrawn and quiet, excess perfectionism over their work, missing deadlines or being visibly upset. Excessive stress can also present as anger or aggression.

Dr Sharie Coombes

“We’ve also seen so many people getting ‘Zoom fatigue’ – having lots of meetings but not really feeling they’re having real connection,” says Edwina.

Reduced job security and uncertainty about the future have also led to anxiety amongst workers, she says.

As individuals, it’s important to find ways to cope with the current pressures. Taking regular exercise, eating well and interacting with others online or on the phone can be a helpful start.

The onus on employers is to help support and advise employees, provide information and training where relevant and to encourage healthy practices, such as clearly dividing work and free time when working from home.

A holistic approach

Not all pressures stem directly from the workplace, so it’s important for staff to look after themselves both mentally and physically in all areas of their lives.

“Many businesses are looking at their well-being strategy and really thinking about how to promote mental health, encourage employees to eat as well as they can and be as healthy as they can, which helps with the ability to cope with everyday pressures,” says Edwina.

Adds Dr Coombes: “If people feel valued and supported, they tend to be more resilient, creative and engaged. Happy staff work harder, are more invested in an organisation and tend to be more productive.”

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