According to the latest figures from the CIPD, 47% of short-term absence and 53% of long-term absences are due to stress. Surprising? The stats get even more worrying when you take into account that the average employee is absent 6.3 days per year, meaning that stress, according to some estimates, can cost the UK economy £6.5bn a year.
This is often more concerning for small business owners, as any employee time off can have an impact your business. But whilst the figures may be the headline catchers, it’s also important to remember that behind the financial figures there is also the human factor - which is why business owners need to focus on the person affected as well as the financial implications.
The good news is that just over three-fifths of organisations are taking steps to identify and reduce stress in the workplace. The bad news, however, is that the survey also found a third of those who include stress among their top five causes of absence are not taking any steps to address it. Not only that, but a third of respondents reported an increase in related absence over the last year.
So as you can see, stress can have a huge impact financially and personally. But despite this, the overall response from businesses has been mixed and employers seem to be taking a reactive approach to employees’ mental health problems, rather than a preventative one.
So how do you go about combating employee stress in your workplace?
1. Recognising the signs and understanding the causes
The first step to combating stress in the workplace is being able to recognise the signs. And often they can be subtle. Anything from changes in appetite, sleep problems and headaches, right through to irritability and mood swings. If left, these can grow and ultimately prolonged periods of stress can lead to workers taking time off, a weakened immune system with greater susceptibility to minor ailments, and sadly could lead to longer-term physical and mental issues. If you do spot any of these signs it may be worth having a quiet, confidential chat with your employee to ensure everything is ok and to reassure them if they are feeling the effects of stress that you will be there to support them.
As well as spotting the signs it’s important that you understand the potential causes, so you can help minimise stressful elements within the workplace where possible. There are a number of reasons why your workers get stressed in the workplace, with workload and management style being two work-related reasons. However, it’s not all to do with work and there are causes that will be outside of your control. Non-work factors, for example, play a huge part; after all your employees don’t switch off their life problems just because they’re at work.
2. Encourage positive workplace relationships
One of the most important ways of combatting stress is by developing and nurturing workplace relationships. As already mentioned, the early signs can be quite subtle and many people will keep any feelings of stress under wraps for fear of negative reactions.
However, if you have a good workplace relationship with your employees you may be able to spot these subtle changes and take steps to ensure the worker is supported as much as possible. What’s more, by developing these relationships it creates an honest and open work culture, with open lines of communication. This kind of culture will not only allow employees to be more comfortable in coming forward to you with any stress-related concerns, but it also lets employees know that you are there to help them and that they are valued as members of staff and not just numbers.
3. Make sure your employees are taking a break
We all know that the world of work is a busy place; you never seem to have a minute to yourself. However taking a break is essential in order to relax the mind and recharge the batteries. Breaks can come in two forms: breaks from work throughout the day, and breaks in terms of taking time away from work.
In terms of the workplace, it’s important to ensure your workers are taking frequent breaks. Spending too much time in front of a screen or on work tasks can lead to stress. To encourage your staff to step away now and again, it’s important that you support a culture where this is the norm. If possible, you may want to provide breakout spaces where workers can take 5 or 10 minutes away, or alternatively encourage workers to take their lunch away from the desk.
In an on-demand, 24/7, always-on society it’s easy for the work-life balance to shift firmly in favour of work. Economic and social pressures may also mean that many employees may feel they need to be working constantly, without a holiday, so their job is not under threat. This, along with other factors, has meant that people are taking less time away from the office and therefore burnout and stress levels have increased.
A recent survey showed that a third of workers don’t take their full annual leave allowance, and even those that do are often finding themselves working on their holidays. So is it time we encouraged our employees to take their full annual leave allowance, to let them switch off fully and come back to work refreshed?
4. Keep track of workloads
One of the biggest causes of workplace stress is a person’s workload; that feeling that you have too much work on your plate.
Much of the problem lies in workload visibility. We are so busy with our own jobs that we don’t truly know the workload of others. And even if you do have visibility through one-to-one meetings or informal conversations, you might not get the whole picture as people may have tasks that you’re not aware of. It all comes back to the workplace relationship: allowing workers to open up about the true extent of their workload and to come to management with any concerns.
5. Carry out return-to-work interviews
This may sound like a grilling or an investigation, but a return-to-work interview doesn't have to be this way and can provide useful information for managers. If an employee has been off, a return-to-work interview will allow you to uncover the reasons behind the absence, and if it’s due to stress you can then start to look how you may be able to combat the issue.
It will not only help individual employees, but it may also allow you to uncover stress-related issues that could be affecting your entire workforce, so you can put plans in place before it becomes a much wider issue.
6. Be a role model
No matter what plans or preventative measures you put in place, it’s important that you act as a role model and lead from the front. If you want to foster an open culture where employee relationships flourish then you need to make sure you’re engaging with your employees. If you feel taking breaks will help stress levels in your company, then make sure you are taking breaks as well. That way you send a message that not only is it ok, it’s encouraged.
As you can see stress can become a problem on both a business and personal level and it’s important business owners realise the potential negative effects, putting in place measures to reduce and prevent as much workforce stress as possible before the problem escalates.
Are you having problems with stress-related absence? Take a look at BrightHR Wellbeing.