Top 5 ways to deal with employee stress

When employees “act out” look for stress indicators to put them and the team back on track.
Latest posts by Melanie Astbury (see all)

Don’t Wait! Deal with employee stress NOW!

News that one in five workers will suffer from a mental illness at some point, according to the OECD, means employers and HR managers must be more vigilant than ever about spotting the first signs of stress in a worker.

Red flag behaviours that all is not well, such as a drop in performance levels, detachment from colleagues, increased irritability or prolonged absences are all reasons to be concerned. Equally important is knowing what steps to take to help your employee deal with the stress that is affecting their performance and their life.

The cost to business in the UK of absence due to mental ill health is about 4.5 per cent of the country’s GDP. That’s higher than Germany or France, so it’s clear that more must be done to improve people’s wellbeing at work and home. So what can a business owner or HR manager do?

1. Look for changes in behaviour

Is a normally happy go lucky staff member suddenly subdued? Are they missing deadlines or not hitting productivity targets? Are line managers reporting withdrawn or irritable behaviour in the workplace? If so, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask what’s up.

This might get a simple answer – it may be an extremely busy time for orders or calls, which the person is struggling to cope with; perhaps they’re juggling several different projects; there may be external pressures, such as family or childcare issues, that are affecting performance at work.

Fact is, you won’t know until you ask.

You may have to assume the role of counsellor at times as you listen to a stressed employee’s story. The important thing is to show empathy as stress is still often stigmatised as a sign of weakness. How many times have you caught someone rolling their eyes when a colleague has complained that they are under too much stress?

However, the pace of life in 2015 and in particular the technology we all have at our fingertips has seen stress shoot through the roof among workers. Mobile technology has brought us much wonderful advancement, but it’s also detrimental to health. No matter your level of responsibility, it has crept into all of our lives. If someone emails you at 9pm, you’re able to access the message even if you can’t do anything about it until the next morning. All you can do is worry about it. No wonder everyone is more stressed than ever before.

Make it part of your routine to observe everyday behaviours and make it part of every catch-up with line managers and department heads to ask about employee behaviour, looking out for unexplained changes. By catching these things early, you’ll be best placed to find a solution together that works.

2. Get employees involved in any change to working practices

If working hours, shift patterns, targets, deadlines, workplace location or any aspect of a job role are changing, the last thing you want to do is spring this on people.

Instead, make sure any changes are planned out thoroughly beforehand and involve the staff in the process if you can, as this will reduce the stressful impact of the change on them.

If you’re asking your staff to work different patterns, or changing working hours, advance notice will help employees plan childcare arrangements, for instance.

Or should your business plan to introduce longer working hours in a physical environment, this might result in a drop in productivity due to tiredness so everything needs to be planned out and the pitfalls discussed before implementation.

Targets and deadlines are major causes of stress, so any changes to these need to be fully explained and built up to, rather than simply introduced one morning with no advance warning. All businesses need targets, but set a reasonable and achievable productivity level, because nothing stresses a person out more than a target they know they’ll never reach.

3. Initiate workplace ‘stress-busters’

If stress complaints are on the increase in your workplace, it could be time to take a look at how easy it is for your staff to let off steam. If there aren’t many stress-busters in place, it could be time to introduce some. This could be as simple as putting a TV in the break room to let people refocus from work worries for a while, or putting games consoles in if you’re feeling a bit more generous.

Stress balls or toys are also a good idea to have lying around in communal areas – just don’t make them dolls of yourself unless you fancy taking a pounding!

Really though, any gesture that offers a fun element to the working day will perform the desired outcome of relieving some stress. How long has it been since there was an office night out, for instance? These are great for team-building and getting everyone to feel valued and part of the team.

Events such as Red Nose Day, Children In Need or Halloween are all great for having little office occasions for your staff. This could be anything from putting on some food, raising money via a bake sale or even a charity dress down day. It doesn’t have to be big to have an impact. Make a gesture, show you care about the people in your business and the rewards will be evident.

4. Question your own management style

If a pattern of stress complaints started appearing on my desk, another thing I would question immediately would be the style of the management within the business. What kind of managers are employed in the company? It’s best to include yourself in this analysis.

Are they overly critical? Do they micro manage everyone? How do they encourage and motivate? What are their personal skills like, do they get on with people generally? Is there a blame culture? Does the atmosphere change when they aren’t around?

As a manager, you get it from all sides as you’re responsible for a team and also report in to a team or board. It can be hard to get the balance right, but problems at this level will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect in employee motivation, productivity and stress levels.

Build these observations into your everyday routine, looking for managers who are achieving good results and have happy teams and those who don’t. Identifying patterns and improvements will be of great value to the business overall.

5. Offer simple solutions

As stress levels build, it makes it impossible to see anything else outside of the problem, it becomes all-consuming.

So as a first step, offer your stressed employee a relief from the burden that’s weighing on them. This could be an offer to work from home for part of the week, or a temporary placement on light duties, removing the problem at a stroke.

Once you have done that, you can work on a permanent solution. This will have to balance the needs of the business against the issue being experienced by the worker. Each step on the road back will have to be measured, both for the employee and the business.

When you have a complaint of stress, speak first to the individual’s line manager, then do a report with recommendations as to how the problem can be addressed.

It’s best not to set a fixed timescale for a full return to work, as each case is different. I’ve known workers take two years off due to stress before a gradual return to work was agreed upon. Regular contact will keep you updated with how the worker is feeling and what, if any, recovery they are making.

When setting a return to work agreement, it’s vital to make the employee find meaning in what they are doing and for them to know they are valued.

Finally, a health questionnaire for staff could help early detection of any workplace stress. Circulate it as part of a regular workstation assessment, including questions about stress, how valued the person feels, how happy they are at work, if the expectations placed on them are realistic.

You are never going to remove stress from work, it’s what makes businesses push on and achieve. So you must do what you can to help people manage it instead.

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