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How to manage workplace stress effectively as an employer

Work-related stress can have a significant impact on employee morale and productivity, not to mention the wider culture of your business.

As an employer, you have a responsibility to help manage and minimise stress for your employees.

Here are some simple ways to ensure workplace stress doesn’t take your business by surprise.

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What is workplace stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.

To some extent, pressure in the workplace is unavoidable.

In fact, a certain amount of pressure is beneficial in keeping your employees alert and motivated – while having too little to do, and being bored, can itself be a source of stress.

Ambitious but realistic targets, combined with plenty of encouragement, can create the right kind of pressure that brings out the best in your people.

The hazard is allowing this pressure to become excessive, and failing to spot when this is happening.

Too much pressure, or pressure of the wrong kind, can have the adverse effect of demotivating your staff and, even worse, causing stress.

Although stress itself is not an illness, it can cause mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

It is also linked to increased risk of heart disease, gastrointestinal conditions and back pain.

As for the health of your business, a stressed office is rarely at its most productive.

What can cause work-related stress?

Although different people find different things stressful, research suggests there are six main causes of stress for employees:

  • Excessive demands – being overloaded by sheer volume of work, or required to do work they are not comfortable with.

  • Lack of control – feeling like they have no say in decisions about how or when they do their work.

  • Lack of support – feeling they cannot talk to their managers about things they are finding difficult.

  • Poor colleague relationships – failing to build positive and trusting relationships with those around them.

  • Lack of clarity about their role – not knowing what is expected of them or understanding how their work supports the wider organisation and its goals.

  • Management changes – feeling uncertain and insecure about their role during times of change.

More generally, respect and recognition are fundamental human needs at work.

A WHO study has shown that many stressful moments in the workplace are linked to feeling offended or ridiculed – for example being left out of a group meeting or event, having an argument or being asked to do something illegitimate.

A prudent employer should have processes in place to avoid employees experiencing such incidents.

In general, it’s about keeping all lines of communication open, setting time aside in one-to-one meetings to talk about any issues, and being clear with your people about what they need to do.

What are the main signs of work-related stress?

If you notice changes in an employee’s behaviour from how they usually are at work, it could be a sign that they’re stressed.

In particular you should look out for employees who:

  • Take time off more frequently for sickness

  • Start coming into work later than usual

  • Seem on-edge or nervous

  • Appear to have mood swings

  • Become withdrawn or quiet

  • Lose motivation or confidence

  • Stop performing as well as they normally do

  • Become more emotional than usual – for example tearful, aggressive or sensitive

Sometimes you may pick up on stress among an entire group.

Signs of stress in teams include:

  • Arguing (as opposed to lively discussions)

  • Lack of communication or friendly conversation

  • Decreased performance

  • Complaints and grievances

  • Higher staff turnover

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How can employers reduce stress in the workplace?

It’s important to encourage your employees to talk either to you, their manager or each other if they feel stressed.

Ensure you have an open culture that promotes positive mental health in the workplace, so your staff will feel more comfortable talking to others any pressures they may be under.

You can do this in simple ways, such as:

  • Weekly team meetings to discuss workloads and address any bottlenecks

  • Regular one-to-ones between managers and team members

  • Encouraging employees to give regular feedback on all areas of the business

In addition, you can help to stress-proof your business by taking the following measures.

  • Have clear procedures – explain to your employees what they should do if they’re concerned about how others are treating them, so they know who to turn to.

  • Offer training – support employees who may be struggling in aspects of their role with additional training. It can boost their skills and productivity as well as their confidence.

  • Be proactive – if you suspect one of your employees is feeling stressed, you or their line manager should talk to them as soon as possible. Encourage them to share any concerns with you and tell them the ways in which you can help.

Managing your own stress as an employer

Just as you need to be aware of your employees’ stress levels, it’s important not to forget your own needs.

Being the boss comes with its own pressures, and it’s often a lonely position to be in.

Signs of stress you might spot in yourself include:

  • Emotional changes – if you feel anxious, scared, angry or sad about your work.

  • Physical changes – stress can cause headaches, nausea or indigestion. It can also make you breathe more quickly, sweat or have heart palpitations (a fast or irregular heart beat).

  • Behavioural changes – you may become more withdrawn, indecisive or inflexible. You might also find you smoke more or consume more alcohol, or that you struggle to sleep as well as you usually do.

If you think you might be under stress, talk to someone.

Also make time to exercise, eat well and take breaks when you can.

These simple steps can make a big difference to your stress levels.

If you find yourself experiencing prolonged stress, speak to your GP about it or contact one of the organisations below.

Some helpful resources for managing workplace stress

A number of charities and government organisations exist to support people with mental health problems, including those linked to stress.

Mind offers employers training and toolkits to help them support their employees.

Anxiety UK offers similar services and has an information line you can call with any questions about preventing stress and anxiety at work.

And Time to Change is a charity campaigning to remove the stigma around mental health, offering resources that can help you open up conversations in the workplace.

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About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.