Workplace wellbeing expert Richard Holmes presents a fistful of key indicating factors
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that approximately 602,000 workers are suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety and that 12.8 million working days were lost due to the same causes in 2018/19.
There are many reasons why employees may experience workplace stress, including high workloads, long working hours, poor work-life balance, relationships at work, fears about position and job security and a lack of support.
The human body is designed to handle small doses of stress, but what we aren't equipped to do is deal with long-term chronic stress. The effects of chronic stress can be catastrophic, having both a physical and mental impact. Ongoing bouts of stress can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders, as well as cardiovascular conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
Unaddressed stress can ultimately harm an organisation's bottom line, due to unhealthy and unhappy employees. It's important that HR professionals can recognise the signs of stress, and offer the correct support before work-related stress reaches unmanageable levels — something that one in five people have often or very often recently experienced according to Westfield Health's latest Wellbeing Index.
So what are the tell-tale signs of a workplace suffering from the negative impacts of stress?
1. Employee performance
A change in performance is a key indicator of stress. Those who are experiencing serious stress may not be capable of performing as they have in the past. Before making any assumptions, honest conversations must take place to assess whether an employee's low productivity is associated with stress.
Managers also need to understand how people deal with and process stress. Often, managers expect employees to immediately return to full productivity after a stressful event, but this generally doesn't happen. Introducing things such as performance improvement plans off-the-cuff can fuel further stress. Recovering from stress takes time, and the correct support must be offered to the employee to ensure a full recovery and eliminate any work-related risks which may create stress in the future.
2. Absenteeism and presenteeism
As stress can affect us both mentally and physically, a spike in absenteeism levels can often indicate that people are suffering. Open and honest conversation is key in getting to the bottom of the real reason for the absence to unearth and address sources of stress.
Whilst some people may take time off when dealing with stress, others may experience presenteeism. Business leaders should also be on the lookout for people who start being late and those who take more frequent, longer breaks throughout the day. Whilst this could easily be dismissed as employees being disengaged and uncommitted, it's most often a sign of stress and a signal for managers to intervene.
3. Employees showing signs of fatigue
If an employee who is usually full of energy starts to show signs of exhaustion and illness, it could be due to stress taking its toll on their physical wellbeing. It's also not unusual for stress to interfere with sleeping patterns — if employees are regularly turning up to work looking visibly tired, it could be a tell-tale sign of stress.
4. Changes in behaviour
This can be tricky to identify, but it's important that managers are able to spot changes in behaviour that are outside the norm for that particular employee. This could be a change in mood, heightened emotions or exhibiting more volatile behaviour.
Managers should also be on the lookout for people who start to withdraw themselves from colleagues, exhibit a loss of motivation or who start to show a lack of self-esteem. Changes in behaviour such as these are often a sure sign of stress, so managers should be checking in with those who work under them on a regular basis. Informal weekly catch-ups are a great way to monitor any changes and surface any potential causes of stress.
5. Negativity across the workforce
Built-up stress inevitably translates into negativity. Most of the time it doesn't surface and remains welled up inside the workforce, leading to a decline in performance and productivity.
A negative work environment can shift employees' focus to petty issues that are unrelated to their jobs, which can leave people feeling disengaged and lead to low levels of retention. If not addressed, negativity can spread further afield and may even hinder recruitment if your organisation becomes known for having a negative and potentially toxic culture.
A negative working environment filled with stress inevitably has an impact on an organisation's bottom line, due to unhealthy, unproductive and unhappy employees. In any workplace, prevention is always best practice. HR departments should look towards implementing a support system that facilitates a culture that prevents stress. Take regular temperature checks across the organisation to identify any likely causes of stress and take steps to address these.
However, there are always going to be some instances of unavoidable stress in the workplace. HR leaders should make sure they are maintaining an open-door policy so that employees feel comfortable enough to come forward if they are suffering. An open and honest culture is key to ensure that honest conversations take place, allowing managers to dig a bit deeper to identify the root causes of any stress. This means they are better equipped to propose and agree on solutions by working with the employee. This could be by providing any necessary training to help the employee carry out their role to their full potential, medical treatment or counselling.
Richard Holmes is director of wellbeing at Westfield Health
On Monday 25 November
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