It’s been a stressful year for most of us. Between the constantly changing coronavirus situation and a majority shift to working from home, many of us have likely found our stress levels rising.
Alternatively, the shift to homeworking may have helped relieve the stresses of office working, and now the idea of returning to the office may have employees anxious and worried.
Whatever the cause, managers and those with a responsibility for workers’ health need to be prepared for stress to make its way into the office following return to work. Although the focus might (rightly) be on ensuring the office is COVID-safe or that risk assessments consider all potential physical dangers, the stress in employees must be identified and managed before it becomes a problem.
We all get stressed once in a while. Whether it’s because of a change in life circumstances, too much work, or lack of support, stress is a natural bodily response. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the levels of stress rose dramatically due to uncertainty about job losses, confinement, and more.
Following the almost overnight shift to home working, 1 in 5 people said their work had been affected because they found working from home ‘difficult’, according to the ONS.
During the first lockdown, 37.4% of adults in the UK stated that the pandemic had affected their well-being. Though normality is resuming, it is still an uncertain time, and another shift in the way people are used to working could trigger more stress and anxiety yet.
Managers need to be eagle-eyed in spotting stress and anxiety in returning workers before it takes root.
How stress impacts work
In recent years, greater emphasis has been placed on tackling stress and anxiety at work. However, nurturing employee mental health remains a low priority in many businesses across the country, despite the impact of poor mental health amongst employees on efficiency and quality of output.
According to Chris Parker, CEO of employment coaching firm TalkingTalent, work-related stress accounted for almost half of work absences and cost British businesses upwards of £26bn in 2019. This will have surely only risen over the past year.
High levels of stress aren’t good for anyone, and businesses need to consider the cost stress has, both in terms of the human toll and the bottom line.
However, more concerning for those with health and safety responsibilities is how high levels of stress can seriously hamper risk management and make it more difficult to achieve a culture of collaborative safety.
Morale and motivation: Even the best workers can get burned out. If they don’t feel like what they’re doing is impacting, then where’s the motivation to try? This can be particularly dangerous in the area of safety and risk management, with employees cutting corners and even ignoring carefully thought out procedures to get the job done faster.
Substance abuse. Stress can trigger mental ill-health and drive people to substance abuse in an attempt to get through the day. In serious cases, employees may start coming to work under the influence, putting themselves and others at real risk of injury or worse.
Absenteeism. When burnout gets bad enough, employees may start missing work. This can obviously impact their performance and output and make the jobs of risk managers more difficult, as you might not have a correct account of who’s in and who’s not. In addition, if an emergency strikes, it can be harder to do your job of keeping everyone out of harm’s way.
High staff turnover. If stress levels are too high or are not being mitigated properly, staff turnover rates can rocket. Not only does this contribute to poor work culture, but it also means trouble for health and safety managers. Each new worker means extra training, and it can be difficult to keep track of who’s up to date and who’s not. That’s not even considering the extra cost – both financial and in terms of precious time – to the health and safety budget.
Stress is bad for everyone, and it pays dividends to both employees and managers to nip it in the bud. So, what can you do as a health and safety manager to identify and minimise it before it becomes a problem?
Identifying and tackling stress at work
According to the HSE, employers have a duty to identify and assess stress as they would any other risk to health. The most obvious signs of stress in the workplace are:
- higher staff turnover
- more reports of stress
- more sickness absence
- decreased performance
- more complaints and grievances
Signs specific to employees themselves are:
- nervousness or ‘twitchy’ behaviour
- mood swings
- being withdrawn
- loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
- increased emotional reactions: being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive
One of the most straightforward ways of identifying how much impact stress is having is with a risk assessment. First, identify potential stress triggers and assess how likely they are to cause trouble as you would with physical risks. I’ve talked previously about how risk assessments don’t need to be big exercises in paperwork – use your initiative and record the important stuff.
According to the HSE, there are six main triggers for stress at work. By identifying the trigger, you can begin working with the employee, colleagues, and managers to ensure the issues are resolved before they cause real problems. You must be active rather than reactive, so always be on the lookout for the signs above.
Overly demanding roles or overwhelming workload
This is one of the main triggers of ‘burnout’, where the employee can’t deal with the amount or type of work they have. This can be common in smaller businesses where workers do the work of several people or where management systems have broken down and work is being passed on without regard for capacity.
In these cases, you should work with both the employee and their manager to modify the employee’s role where possible, to either minimise or adjust their work to make it more manageable.
Encourage managers to bring in additional resources or implement job enrichment and task rotation. Workloads must be managed properly, and employees shouldn’t be regularly working with unrealistic deadlines. Similarly, employees must be empowered to reject work if they do not have the capacity.
Lack of control
It’s crucial that employees feel that they have control over their job and that their concerns are taken seriously. I’ve blogged previously about how important psychological safety at work is, and this can be encouraged by regularly requesting input from employees about how work could be better managed, and ensuring that these ideas are passed up the chain to decision-makers.
It would help if you worked with managers to encourage them to trust and empower employees to manage their own workload and avoid micromanagement. Steering employees in the right direction is far more powerful than ordering them to do something. Regular training can also be highly beneficial in giving employees a greater sense of control.
Lack of support
This can be a big one, especially in larger businesses with many employees or big teams. Nonetheless, employees mustn’t be left to fall through the cracks and get the support they need. Work closely with managers to foster a supportive atmosphere: a few small changes can go a long way.
Managers should always make time for praise and acknowledge employee efforts and be on hand to help when an employee highlights an issue. Conversely, any criticism must be constructive and followed up with solutions. Managers should also be conscious of outside pressures on the employee, such as family or financial trouble, to ensure criticism isn’t simply adding to the pile. Finally, where necessary, managers should always be flexible and allow for time off when needed.
Issues with other colleagues
Humans nearby will always have conflicts; it’s just a fact of life that we don’t get along well with everyone. However, you can minimise the impact these conflicts have on the workplace by partnering with managers to ensure issues are properly handled and that employees feel comfortable talking about the problem without judgement or bias.
Managers must listen objectively to both sides of the conflict and properly investigate complaints rather than ignoring problems and hoping they’ll go away. Prevention is always the best treatment.
As a third party, you can often assist by ensuring the discussions remain positive, unbiased and that everyone stays calm. Once a dialogue has been opened, you can also be on hand to ensure any changes promised are implemented.
Conflicting/unclear job demands
No one likes to be left in the dark. If employees are regularly tasked with projects without the right context, information, or training, it will eventually lead to stress. It is crucial that managers are clear in what the objectives of each role are and clearly communicate any changes to these roles.
Similarly, in fast-paced businesses, care should be taken to ensure employees are not being overloaded with tasks from other managers or are not being given projects that conflict with existing objectives. Again, regular meetings and open lines of communication are crucial here.
It’s only natural to fear change, especially when change can impact us negatively, and fear of change can become a serious stress trigger when it is constant.
Thankfully, it’s relatively simple to minimise the effect change has on your employees. Simply keeping them in the loop with regular communication can be powerful. No one likes to hear big news on the grapevine, and rumours can spread quickly. By ensuring team leaders clearly communicate potential changes and offer support where needed, the potential impact can be minimised.
How can I help?
Stress can have a major impact on proper risk management and health and safety, but real solutions are all too often ignored to favour quick results or more immediate concerns. As a health and safety manager, you are in a unique position to help tackle stress in the workplace before it causes serious problems.
With over two decades in the health and safety sector, I’ve worked with plenty of businesses to minimise stress and ensure the wellbeing of employees and, subsequently, the bottom line. So if you think I might help you, get in touch on 07814 203 977 or use my online contact form.