A little healthy stress provides many of us with the drive to do our best and stay focused at work. However, prolonged and high levels of stress can have the opposite effect and lead to long-term physical and mental health problems for employees, and issues regarding morale, productivity and staff turnover for the organisation they work for.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), states that stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related illnesses in 2017-18, and a loss of 15.4 million working days. More recently, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) 2018 health and wellbeing report revealed that stress was the second highest cause of short-term absence (after minor illnesses, i.e. colds).
What is Workplace Stress, Anxiety and Depression?
Employees may, at some point in their career, experience workplace anxiety (a fear of what is required of them or what is to come), workplace stress (problems managing or coping with their current work), workplace depression (views of their past efforts, feelings about their situation, effects on their non-work lives), or a combination of all three, ranging from mild and short-term, to severe and debilitating.
Workplace Anxiety can relate to:
- Fear of not meeting deadlines;
- Fear that their work won’t be good enough;
- Fear of public speaking or speaking in meetings;
- Fear of working in teams;
- Fear of negative judgement; and
- Fear of interacting with authority figures.
Workplace Stress can relate to:
- Heavy or unmanageable workloads;
- Working long hours;
- Organisational changes;
- Lack of appropriate skills;
- Lack of resources;
- Poor working environments; and
- Poor working relationships.
Workplace Depression can relate to:
- Heavy or unmanageable workloads;
- Past actions seen (or pointed out) as failings;
- Dealing with difficult customers or situations;
- Work/Life limitations (i.e.: being unavailable for family and caring duties);
- Over-supervision or under-supervision;
- Personal values that don’t align with the organisation’s values; and
- Harassment and/or discrimination.
Why the Sharp Rise?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety has increased by nearly 50% between 1990 and 2013. Much of this is attributed, not just to internal work factors, but to non-work elements, driven by developments in technology and smartphones, meaning that our jobs are no longer confined to the workplace, but now feature heavily on our commutes, in the supermarket, at the dinner table, and even in our bedrooms (11.38pm email check, anyone?)
Technology and the Internet, as wonderful as they are, are also responsible for overwhelming distraction, comparison, a need for speed, and a compulsion towards personal development (AKA The Self-Improvement Movement) that inspires a perfectionist mindset – we feel we must have it all together, all of the time, because of course, the rest of the world does – it’s right there on Facebook/Instagram. This goes for the workplace too. The downside to this mindset is that it can inspire employees to keep quiet about their struggles.
What Can Employers Do?
1. Look for the Signs
There are many signs that point to someone suffering from workplace stress, anxiety or depression. As an employer, you cannot necessarily spot internal struggles your employees are suffering, but you can look out for:
- Loss of interest in work;
- Irritability or unusual sadness;
- Increased emotional reactions;
- Loss of confidence;
- Poor memory and trouble concentrating;
- Social withdrawal;
- Changes in work attendance; and
- Alcohol, drug or substance abuse.
2. Open the Channels of Communication
Good communication is absolutely essential, and the very first point to address. Ensure there are effective communication channels between employees, employers and managers. A great starting point could be by way of regular staff surveys or suggestion boxes that allow employees to anonymously share any concerns about their work.
You may also provide opportunities for employees to speak confidentially with managers, in a non-judgmental format that can be arranged formally through HR or occupational health (where they exist).
Whether they choose to use these channels or not, having them in place can go a long way towards inspiring confidence in employees that they can talk openly should they ever feel that their situation is becoming too difficult to manage.
3. Apply Both Short-Term and Long-Term Strategies
Short-term strategies to consider include:
Offering Stress Management Workshops – If you have identified that stress is an issue (for one or more employee), commission experts to come in and run workshops for all staff, focusing on stress management techniques and coping tools.
Monitor Workloads – Keep track of workloads and their accompanying deadlines and consider whether they are fair and reasonable. Intervene wherever you notice unreasonable demands being placed on any one employee or a group of employees.
Educate Managers – Ensure your management team remembers to show gratitude and appreciation to employees for work well done and great efforts, as it goes a long way to building morale – far more than exclusively doling out criticisms for deadlines missed or errors made.
Inspire Positive Behaviours – Encourage employees to take breaks away from their desks or workstations at regular intervals. Encourage exercise in the form of a brisk walk during their meal breaks (exercise is considered vital for good mental health). Encourage employees to take their holidays wherever you notice these are being foregone and provide good cover for these holidays so they will not feel obliged to field emails and phone calls while away from work.
Long-term strategies to consider include:
Training – This can be very effective for employees who lack confidence in their abilities, or feel ill-equipped for the role they find themselves in. Refresher courses in-house, formal courses off-site, job shadowing and mentoring can all help an employee feel more in control.
Offering Flexibility – Consider offering flexible working arrangements, such as working around responsibilities for caring for children or elderly relatives, working from home on occasion, or working from a satellite office nearer to their home.
Enhancing your Environment – Is there an adjustment you could make to your workplace to reduce stress, remove distractions, improve essential comfort or increase productivity?
Providing Work/Life Balance Workshops – Consider short courses in relaxation techniques, time management and organisational skills. You can even include weekly or regular one-off lunchtime classes on healthy living, healthy eating and maintaining a good work/life balance.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies that employers can apply, but these are a great start towards immediate improvement and relief for employees who may be silently struggling.
Conversations about mental health in the workplace are becoming more frequent, which is a positive thing. But it does remain that we have shifted from a culture of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ to an unrealistic pursuit of perfection as portrayed across social media, and perspectives on performance in the workplace are no exception to this.
Therefore, it is essential that employers take very seriously their role in noticing issues and doing what they can to support their employees in speaking openly, building resilience and managing inevitable pressures while at work.