Why Stress Awareness in the Workplace Matters 

April is Stress Awareness month, and we are delighted to have a wellbeing expert client on board who has provided a guest blog this month. Samantha Cutler from Whole Wellbeing details top tips for identifying and dealing with stress in the workplace. 

According to a Mental Health Foundation report 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. 

Pandemic aftereffects and now the rising cost of living mean people are experiencing significant strains on their finances and time. Not least the inflationary pressures tightening budgets in the workplace which are also increasing work-related stress, and for some are leading to burnout. This means stress continues to be one of the main causes of absence and presenteeism and is costly to both employee and employer.  

According to the CIPD 2022 health & wellbeing at work survey, 79% reported some stress-related absence, with this figure rising to 90% in large organisations with more than 250 employees. 

Smart employers know that organisations are only as strong as their people and that the experiences, wellbeing and motivation levels of individual employees are crucial to how well the organisation performs. By supporting employee wellbeing, organisations reap the benefits through enhanced morale, loyalty, creativity, productivity and profitability. 

More employers are beginning to tackle stress within organisations. Those seeing success and the best return on investment (ROI) are incorporating a holistic, integrated approach, where there is buy in from senior management, along with a strong organisational wellbeing strategy, training and employee commitment and engagement.  

Identifying Stress in the Workplace 

There is sometimes confusion between the term ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’. A certain amount of pressure is healthy and can be motivating, it can keep us safe, spur us on to meet tight deadlines or increase focus on resolving a problem. It can be viewed as essential and healthy for us to have challenges in life, which create such pressure and can positively impact on performance and productivity.  

The problem arises when this level of pressure exceeds an individual’s perceived ability to cope. Moreover, if this excessive level of pressure continues for a prolonged period it can be detrimental to our health. This is known as chronic stress. 

Chronic stress is found to contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure, impacts on the immune system, is linked to strokes, stomach conditions, diabetes, muscle and joint pain, miscarriage, allergies and alopecia. It can lead to these serious health problems because it disrupts the hormones of nearly every system in our body. Moreover, it can affect performance and relationships with colleagues and thus behaviours too. 

However, one of the difficulties with stress is that people experience stress in different ways. Stress will usually manifest itself one way or another, negatively, under four broad categories:  

  1. Cognitive – negative thoughts, poor judgement, inability to make decisions, constant worrying, racing thoughts, forgetfulness, disorganisation. 
  1. Emotional – irritable, low mood, depression, snappy, anxious, feeling overwhelmed, loneliness, feeling unmotivated, tearfulness. 
  1. Physical – headaches, upset stomachs, feeling tired, clenching jaw, dizziness, heavy chest, insomnia. 
  1. Behavioural – withdrawing, acting out of character, risky behaviour, drinking more, smoking more, biting nails. 

It is important to remember that when we come to work, we bring the ‘whole person’ with us. Long gone are the days where we leave our home problems at the work door and vice versa. The somewhat idealistic approach of compartmentalising and keeping our work and private lives separate, is not how our brains are wired. Issues at home can deplete our personal resources, making it more difficult when work demands increase. 

It’s very rare that employees come to work and make mistakes because they’re poorly trained – it’s more likely that their brain is at full capacity, they’re not present, trying to work through the quagmire of problems in their head, losing focus and attention on the task in hand. This can lead to costly health & safety issues. Stressed employees are more likely to make mistakes, miss deadlines, and have low productivity. This, in turn, can lead to increased absenteeism and staff turnover, as well as a decrease in the overall morale of the workplace. 

Promoting wellbeing at every level, both personally and professionally, can help prevent stress and create positive working environments where organisations and their people can thrive. It can be a core enabler of employee engagement and organisation performance.  

Get Started with Implementing Wellbeing in your Workplace 

All employers have a legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. This includes minimising the risk of work-related mental health issues, not just injury. 

As an organisation, creating a workplace environment where everyone feels valued and supported is crucial to tackling this workplace problem. 

But where to start?  

  1. Carry out an employee wellbeing audit of your workplace – this enables you to understand what factors affect staff wellbeing and mental health in your organisation, and what needs to be done to make improvements.   
  1. Create a comprehensive wellbeing strategy – include the results of your audit and the Health & Safety Executive’s Stress Management Standards six key areas of managing stress in the workplace: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. 
  1. Take a preventative and proactive approach to maintaining employee positive mental health – interestingly, (but unsurprising in our opinion!) research is showing a greater ROI. Of course, reactive wellbeing services when an employee’s health has deteriorated, are still necessary and effective. But the report by Deloitte found that awareness trainings and interventions were shown to demonstrate the largest ROI. Which makes sense, empower employees to make positive wellbeing and lifestyle choices, to prevent poor health, and create a positive workplace culture with high engagement and productivity.  
  1. Find out what causes work-related stress in your organisation – poor communication, digital miscommunication, team morale, unrealistic deadlines or too high workloads. Knowing how to manage these factors is key to managing people successfully. 
  1. Ensure senior management buy-in – Director level, HR lead or wellbeing leads all need to commit to creating a supportive culture, engaging with the resources and programmes initiated, not solely referring others to them. The CIPD’s 2021 Employee resilience evidence review showed that supportive managers helped to protect people’s resilience.  
  1. Implement tactics that aim to reduce stress in the workplace – for example; employee assistance programmes, educational workshops, whole workforce training, specific manager wellbeing training, flexible working options (to improve work-life balance), employee benefits / perks programme (such as reduced activity memberships or discounts on shopping), email curfews, additional days off eg birthdays. 
  1. Incorporate Wellness Action Plans – this could be a mandatory section of appraisals with a focus on wellbeing. This can help to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health as it becomes a normal part of systems and policies. It can help encourage open conversations, a supportive environment and problem solve when any issues begin to surface. 
  1. Review your environment – do your offices inspire? Do they offer a space to breathe? Do they encourage conversation, creativity and boost morale? These changes don’t have to be costly, but small gestures can make a huge difference in the physical and mental ‘state’ that employees attend work. A company who are an excellent example this and offering stand-out wellbeing are Cooper Parry.  

Top tips for Managers and Team Leaders: 

  1. Training – make it a requirement that all management, and those with line manager duties, attend training on understanding stress and managing wellbeing. Having line managers who can initiate a conversation around wellbeing and help employees to create action plans can pay dividends to team morale, better communication and productivity. 
  1. Team building – hit the HSE’s key area of relationships. Don’t just wait for the obligatory Christmas party, what else as a company or team do you offer to encourage building relationships? Strong relationships amongst peers, has been proven to increase perceived support and help to build resilience. 
  1. Check in – everybody’s capacity to manage stress is different, which raises the importance of an individualised approach. Get to know your team and aim to get regular touch points scheduled. This may take the form of 1:1 check-in, team meetings, coffee and chats. It allows you to notice changes amongst individuals. If an employee knows they can come to a line manager and seek support, it may help to reduce absenteeism, allow problems to be worked through and adjustments to working practices to be made. This is helpful for the individual concerned, but also benefits wider across the individual’s team or workforce before things get too serious.  
  1. Praise – it might sound fluffy, but 72% of UK-based employees believe that their wellbeing would be improved if they were simply thanked more often. In business it can be a never-ending cycle of audits and improvements, but remember to focus on the positives, what has gone well and who needs to be thanked, rather than on what needs to be done better.  
  1. Ask for feedback! – don’t assume that you know best for an employee, but also don’t take for granted that the support you’ve offered is the right fit; what worked for one employee may not work for another, so be open to listening to what support an individual would like. 

You are not expected to be an expert in mental health, or wellbeing. There may be times when the employees require help beyond your capabilities and that is okay. Have an armoury of resources to be able to signpost your team to but maintain your role in providing practical and emotional support. 

Employee Tips: 

We all have responsibility for our own mental health and wellbeing – all employees!  

  1. Take responsibility – if stress is having a negative impact on your wellbeing, speak up. Who do you need to talk to? What will help?  

– talk to your manager about additional training you may need. 

– negotiate on fair workloads and ensure deadlines are achievable and realistic. 

– create a wellness action plan, including any adjustments needed to help you navigate through any stressful periods. 

  1. Engage with services already being provided – many will be free to you as an employee, or maybe discounted through an employee benefits scheme.  
  1. Take accountability – maintain and/ or improve your health and wellbeing through education, attend training sessions or workshops to help build resilience and coping strategies. Everyone will suffer from stress at some point in their lives and having a toolkit of resources to access can help lessen its impact. 
  1. Take your breaks – help your eyes, fatigue, productivity and blood pressure by taking your breaks. Get up, go outside and get some fresh air, eat nutritious food, have a catch up with colleagues and return to the desk feeling focused, alert and motivated. 
  1. Be kind! – to ourselves and to others. The wider impact of a colleague suffering from chronic stress and absence may put us under greater work pressure, but how would we wish for others to respond if that was us? To be caring and empathetic no doubt. 
  1. Practice self-care – a cliché maybe but taking control of your personal health can make a huge difference. This could be through exercise, booking that health check-up, being more assertive, saying no, eating well or booking your annual leave entitlement, rather than trying to cram it into those last days of the year!  

Let Stress Awareness month serve as reminder to check in and evaluate. For your organisation and for yourself. Remember, people bring the ‘whole person’ to work! Many places continue to separate mental health and physical health, as well as the personal and professional aspects of oneself. But the mind and body are intrinsically linked – we understand this at Whole Wellbeing, and have always championed a holistic approach (it’s in our name!) when delivering our training, workshops and wellbeing coaching sessions

To discuss any of these points further, connect with me on LinkedIn. If you’re open to discovering how we may be able to support your organisation, please email  hello@wholewellbeing.co.uk.