Employers’ roles in dealing with employee stress

The British Academy was inspired to carry out research into work-related stress (‘Stress at Work’) on the basis that the evidence of work stress began emerging during the 1990’s, a period of relative economic prosperity. So what would stress levels be like now after a period of recession?

The report identifies certain work stressors such as job insecurity, work intensity and inter-personal conflict at work, all of which it says have increased since the 2008-09 recession. This relates particularly to the public sector, where levels of work-related stress are expected, according to the report, to rise.

Stress isn’t an illness in itself but rather something that has become a normal part of daily life for many, but which can lead to physical or mental illness if it becomes excessive. Extended periods of stress can cause depression and a suppressed immune system, which can eventually lead to physical illness.

Interestingly, sickness absence rates have fallen slightly since the 2008-09 recession, perhaps, according to the report, due to increased pressure during times of economic instability to turn up for work. Presenteeism (namely turning up for work because of a pressure to do so, regardless of one’s state of health) has its own implications for businesses and individuals.

The report identifies two main approaches to reducing work stress: stress management training (which focuses on increasing a person’s ability to deal with stress) and workplace organisational interventions. One of these workplace interventions might be to develop an employee engagement strategy. For example, employers could:

  • hold regular reviews with staff giving them the opportunity to discuss any ongoing concerns;
  • introduce an ‘open door policy’ so staff feel they can discuss any issues whenever they feel they need to;
  • encourage a two-way or open dialogue to actively involve staff and promote engagement and communication.

It is very difficult for employers to be clear about how their employees are feeling. What are acceptable levels of stress? How do you detect when stress is becoming excessive? How would you recognise the difference between anxiety, stress and depression, and how would you intervene?

The Health for Work Adviceline (0800 0 77 88 44) allows small business managers to speak to a qualified occupational health professional in the strictest confidence who will offer guidance and advice over the phone and will send a breakdown down of the issues discussed and an action plan. They will also provide signposts or recommendations to specialist providers, if required.

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