Taking the stress test

Stress is an emotion we all feel to varying degrees. So how can businesses detect and prevent work-induced stress reaching a level that can cause harm?

How often do you hear someone saying they are ‘stressed out’? Stress is an emotion we all feel to varying degrees. One person’s stress is another person’s motivation. So how can businesses detect and prevent work-induced stress reaching a level that not only causes harm to the worker but has long-term consequences for the reputation and success of the business?

It’s a question that many firms are looking to answer right now, as awareness of mental health and the responsibilities of employers in this regard, is rising in prominence. Managing stress and mental health in the workplace is not just a challenge, it’s a legal obligation. Specifically, businesses have a duty to identify significant and foreseeable risks to employee health, prevent harm caused by work and to consider any physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term effect on an employee’s ability to work.

What businesses need to recognise is that while stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, it’s closely linked to mental health and can lead to more serious disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Startlingly, 68 per cent of British adults consider themselves to be stressed with one in six people experiencing a common mental health condition, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week, according to a recent survey by BUPA. In fact, mental health charity MIND has found that one in four people with mental health issues label work as the cause.

For businesses, the impact of stress can be severe, including poor concentration and decision making. Photograph: iStock / AfricaImages

In the construction sector, where ECIS focuses its services, the statistics are just as concerning with nearly half of those working within the industry (45 per cent) admitting to having considered quitting due to stress.

Concerns over workload demands, job security, relationships with colleagues and the struggle to achieve that ever important work-life balance can often be the catalyst for work-related stress and mental health issues.

For businesses, the impact of stress can be severe – ranging from poor employee concentration and decision making, increased sickness absence and lost working days to added pressure on others causing a potential ‘domino effect’.

Sadly, while there are a range of effective stress management services, social stigma and a general lack of understanding surrounding these issues lead many people to assume stress is something they need to live with and this stops them from accessing the appropriate care and support they need.

So, the first important step for any business is to familiarise themselves with the signs of stress. The HSE provides some pointers, which include mood swings, being withdrawn, loss of motivation, commitment and confidence and increased emotional reactions, such as being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive.

Businesses can also consider equipping team members with the skills and knowledge to both identify and support employees struggling with stress by training line managers as mental health first aiders.

While stress isn't a psychiatric diagnosis it can lead to more serious disorders. Photograph: iStock

The government has recently confirmed it is investing £15 million and is committed to training up to one million members of the public as mental health first aiders over the next three years. If all businesses made a commitment to develop their own first aiders, the societal benefits could be huge.

In conjunction with this, a culture that encourages open dialogue with proactive communication with employees about the importance of good mental health and wellbeing needs to be created. Giving an employee time to talk through their concerns can be very therapeutic. Asking for help should be encouraged as a positive move, not a sign of weakness.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, employers should ensure there are effective stress management programmes in place and that appropriate, professional support is available to staff who need it. Speed of access to support is the key here.

Research shows that by offering access to early intervention services, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP) or direct access to triage services for mental health conditions without the need for GP referral, businesses can reduce the length of a typical absence by as much as 17%.

Although 51 per cent of businesses offer some kind of EAP, these are often under marketed and therefore under-utilised. It’s crucial that employees are regularly reminded of the services in place to support them.

With stress accounting for 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health in 2015/16, the role employers can play in identifying and mitigating stress in the workplace cannot be overstated.

Find ‘Start the conversation’ training sessions at: britsafe.org/products/mental-health-start-the-conversation

More about stress at work at: hse.gov.uk/stress

Vicki Leslie is client relationship manager at ECIS