Stress at work is on the rise

In 2016-17 the Health and Safety Executive recorded 526,000 workers in the UK reporting work-related stress, depression or anxiety, amounting to 40% of work-related illnesses.  ACAS received 11,000 calls to their helpline during 2016 regarding stress at work, highlighting the importance for employers to be aware of and take steps to tackle work related stress and develop practices to assist those struggling with stress.  In response to this, ACAS has recently published guidance aimed at managers to assist them in supporting staff at work and to improve productivity within the business.

Why should employers try to decrease stress at work?

  • Staff are happier and healthier.
  • Increases in performances and productivity.
  • Decreases in absence levels – in 2016/17 12.5 million working days were lost due to work related stress, depression and anxiety.
  • Decrease in workplace disputes.
  • Increases attractiveness of the business to applicants.

Reducing work-related stress

The guidance reminds employers that they have obligations to carry out risk assessments regarding work-related stress and to take steps to address the risks raised. It also highlights that employers should always seek to work alongside their staff to reduce work-related stress, noting that the best way to support staff is to learn from them what they need. ACAS provides some example steps:

  • Identify the problem.
  • Propose a solution(s), discuss how this will be achieved and by when.
  • Determine how the individual will be kept informed, this could include ongoing informal chats.
  • Set a date to review whether the aim has been achieved.

Spotting and supporting staff experiencing stress

Once a solution has been found, the responsibility of supporting staff does not end; seeking to create a supportive and open environment can help staff in the future experiencing stress at work. The guidance offers the following advice for managers:

  • Taking preventative measures where work-related risks are identified can help minimise stress for staff. Managers should be looking to support staff where they can. The guidance recommends that managers undergo training on stress, however, they are not expected to be experts.
  • Don't make assumptions based on the behaviour of employees. However, the guidance identifies some common indicative signs of stress including: changes to usual behaviour and standard of work; tiredness; anxiousness or withdrawn attitudes; changes in appetite; an increase in smoking and / or drinking; or an increase to sickness absences. Managers should be aware of these signs and take friendly initial action, such as an informal chat with the individual offering support and acknowledgment that someone is there to talk to.
  • Keeping a supportive environment is important for all staff, but even more so when approaching staff believed to be experiencing stress. ACAS advises managers to approach employees suffering stress in the same manner as managing staff with mental health issues.
  • Allow the individual to feel comfortable and hold chats in a private space, be patient and open minded when listening to what the individual is experiencing. It is important the employee does not feel alone. Therefore, working together to create solutions can really help build support. It may also be appropriate to allow the individual a companion for additional support at any meetings if they please.
  • It can often be the case that a small change is all that is required to create a large impact on the individual's ability to cope with stress. A manager showing an understanding of an employee's stress can go a long way and solutions can be reached together.
  • Where larger adjustments are required to be made, which may require relevant authorisation, it is important for managers to maintain a transparent line of communication with the individual throughout the authorisation process; doing so will ensure that the individual remains supported. Where authorisation is denied, managers should work together with the individual to find an alternative solution.

What does this mean for employers?

Employers have an ongoing obligation to ensure the safety of their employees. Ensuring that managers are familiar with ACAS's best practice guidance could go a long way in supporting staff and creating a more productive and comfortable workforce.

Whilst stress may be part of the job for many, it is not something employees should suffer alone and an unmanageable amount of stress is beneficial for neither party. It is, therefore, imperative that employers understand the signs, risk and effects of stress on their employees and implement a support network for all staff across all levels.

For further information on managing employees suffering stress at work please see the ACAS Guidance here.