Stress is a growing epidemic, with eight in 10 workers in the Capita Employee Benefits May 2014 employee insight report admitting to feeling stressed in the past 12 months. Longer working hours are a likely contributing factor – our report noted that just over one in three employees work beyond their contracted hours. A tough economic climate also helps to ratchet up stress in the workplace. With lower job security, people are more inclined to take on heavier workloads to demonstrate their utility to their employer. However, a combination of longer working hours, larger workloads and pressure to perform creates the perfect breeding ground for stress.

When an individual suffers from stress, it can lead to lower productivity. Not only this, but stress can have a domino effect throughout the workforce, with colleagues picking up work from those struggling to cope or absent from work.

One of the main problems with stress is that it can be a silent issue, with many people simply not knowing where and how they can get help. Consequently, they can feel that they are not getting the support they need to be able to deal with stress. As such, an organisation with a stressed workforce is likely to see growing rates of absenteeism – people simply stop turning up to work because they can’t face it. If these individuals continue to fail to be supported, it can soon reach a point where they may be forced to quit their job, resulting in valuable talent leaving an organisation.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 15.2 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2013. These are startling figures, especially when you consider the cost of absenteeism on organisations’ bottom lines. It is vital that employers start taking stress seriously and move the management of it higher up the business agenda.

Stress addressed

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with stress. But the first step in addressing the issue is understanding its scale within an organisation and trying to spot the underlying causes and triggers. As such, organisations should seek to conduct a detailed risk assessment. This should be an audited exercise to understand the health of the workforce as a whole and on an ongoing basis. Few organisations do this – with just under one in five employees in our report saying their employer has ever conducted one. By looking at the response of the health assessment and cross referencing this against absenteeism rates, patterns usually emerge.

For example, a particular department returns its audit at the start of the year in relatively good health; however, six months later, the same group comes back saying it’s suffering from tiredness and poor health. At the same time, absenteeism among this group increases. This would be an indication to the employer of stress. It would then be an apt time to consider triggers for this stress and seek to remedy these.

What can an employer do?

Everyone copes with stress in different ways. To tackle this growing issue, organisations must encourage an open dialogue about stress with staff. Employees must feel that they are able to voice concerns, that they will be listened to when they do and, most importantly, that action will be taken to help them. A vital part of dealing with stress is being able to intervene early and finding the right support at the right time.

By providing targeted health benefits for all employees such as expanded access to private healthcare, health coaching and even simple personal health awareness events, employers will find these offerings could help staff to deal with stress and prevent absenteeism, potentially saving the organisation thousands of pounds in lost days. As organisations try to hold on to talented staff, such benefits could help those who may be tempted to quit.

Many companies offer a range of health benefits to their employees, including employee assistance programmes, private medical insurance and psychiatric outpatient/self-referral programmes. However, with survey findings showing that such a high percentage of employees are experiencing stress at work, it has never been more important for employers to review their benefits package. They must tailor benefits to ensure that they are giving individuals within their workforce the support they need.

If organisations do not actively address stress levels among their employees now, this is an epidemic that will only continue to worsen.

By Alistair Dornan, as published in Personnel Today on 5th June 2014

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