After minor illness, stress is the second most common cause of short-term absence from work. Paul Tooth, CEO of BrightHR, looks at how to go about combating stress in the workplace.

According to the latest figures from the CIPD, 47 per cent of short-term absences and 53 per cent of long-term absences are due to stress. Surprising? Taking into account that the average employee is absent 6.3 days per year due to stress, it can actually cost the UK economy £6.5bn a year. Combating stress should thus be high on any business owner’s list of priorities.

The CIPD figures are even more concerning for SME bosses as employees taking time off can have a detrimental effect on business. But, whilst these figures may be headline catchers, it is important to remember that behind the financial statistics there is also the human factor. Business owners must focus on the person affected, as well as the financial implications.

It was also found by the CIPD that a third of those who include stress among their top five causes of absence are not taking steps to address it. Not only that, but a third of respondents reported an increase in stress related absence over the last year.

It isn’t all bad news though. Just over three-fifths of UK organisations are currently identifying and combating stress. But the overall response from businesses has been mixed, with employers taking a reactive approach to employees’ mental health problems, rather than a preventative one. So how do you go about combating stress?

1) Understanding the cause and recognising the signs
There are a number of reasons why workers may become stressed. Workload and management style are two work-related reasons, but most of the time it is not all to do with work – non-work factors also play a huge part. After all, your employees don’t switch off their life problems just because they’re at work.

Signs of stress can be subtle to begin with. Anything from changes in appetite, sleep problems and headaches, right through to irritability and mood swings. If left, these can grow and, ultimately, lead to workers taking time off, a weakened immune system with greater susceptibility to minor ailments, and potentially long-term physical and mental issues. And the first step towards combating stress in the workplace, is recognising what can cause it, as well as when your employees might be suffering.

2) Encourage positive workplace relationships
One of the most important ways of combating stress is by developing and nurturing workplace relationships. As mentioned, the early signs of stress 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 relationship with your employees you may be able to spot subtle changes and ensure the worker is supported as much as possible. What’s more, by developing these relationships, employees themselves may come forward to you with stress-related concerns.

3) Make sure your employees are taking a break
We all know the world of work is a hectic place, but taking a break is essential to relax the mind and recharge the batteries. Breaks can come in two forms; breaks throughout the day and breaks in terms of taking time away from work. It is important to ensure workers take breaks now and again. Spending too much time in front of a screen can lead to stress. Encouraging a culture where this is the norm should be supported. If possible, break spaces where workers can take time away should be provided. Alternatively, encourage workers to take lunch away from the desk.
In an on-demand, 24/7, society it is easy for the work-life balance to shift in favour of work. Economic and social pressures may also mean employees feel they must always work to ensure they have a job. This combination, along with other factors, can mean people are taking less time away from the office and, in return, burnout and stress levels have increased. A recent survey showed a third of workers don’t take their full annual leave allowance and even those that do find themselves working on their holidays. So is it time we encourage staff to take their full annual leave allowance in order to switch off fully?

4) Keep track of workloads
One of the biggest causes of workplace stress is workload. Most will have felt there is too much work on their 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, people may have tasks they haven’t written down or articulated for various reasons. It all comes back to the workplace relationship: allowing workers to open up about their workload and to come to management with any concerns.

5) Carry out return-to-work interviews
This may sound like a grilling but a return to work interview doesn’t have to be this way and can provide useful information. If an employee has been off due to stress, or for any other reason, a return-to work interview will allow you to uncover the reasons behind the absence. If their absence was due to stress, you can then start to look how you may be able to combat the issue. It will not only help individuals but it may also allow you to uncover stress-related issues affecting your entire workforce. You can then put plans in place before it becomes a wider issue.

6) Be a role model
No matter what plans or preventative measures you put in place, it is important that you act as a role model and lead from the front. To be able to foster an open culture where employee relationships flourish 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, not working every hour possible. That way you send a message that not only is it ok, it’s encouraged.

By Paul Tooth, as published in Real Business on 13th February 2017

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