Stress is now the most common cause of long-term sick leave in the UK, which means that organisations can no longer afford to ignore the issue.
But line managers need clear guidance from the HR department on how to identify early signs of stress within their teams and manage the situation so that it works for everyone.
By investing time in putting measures in place to understand the issues and how to deal with them, it becomes possible to build a supportive framework that has a positive impact on both overall staff morale and performance.
Stress is defined as the ‘inability to handle pressure’. While it is recognised that a certain amount of stress can act as a useful catalyst to boost performance – as in the case of athletes before a race or actors waiting in the wings – without the right amount of support, pressure can generate such high levels of stress that the opposite becomes true.
If this logic is followed through to its conclusion, it appears that a high-pressure environment coupled with high levels of support lead to high performance, while high pressure with inadequate support result in stress and a performance drop. So how do HR professionals ensure that employees receive the right kind of support or – even better – are in a position to support themselves?
In most cases, it does not cause surprise if a given member of the team goes off work due to stress because one or more of their colleagues will have noticed a change in their behaviour and probably even commented on it. But the tone and delivery of these observations are fundamental to the impact that they will have on that individual.
Equally important is the organisation’s culture and attitude towards stress. Can the issue be raised in a safe and constructive way? Or is it generally seen as a failure on the part of employees to cope with the day-to-day demands of work?
HR professionals should encourage line managers to help create a supportive environment by first of all introducing the topic of stress into team discussions and accepting that there are times when it is an inevitable part of people’s working lives – particularly in the context of today’s fragile economy where fears about job cuts, restructuring and wage freezes are very real.
The idea of introducing a ‘temperature check’ at team meetings is also useful. This involves regularly asking people: “Where are you on your stress scale?” This simple question opens discussion and results in the topic becoming an accepted one rather than taboo.
It also creates an opportunity for colleagues to see how they can help each other. Encouraging teams – and even departments – to support each other not only creates greater awareness of the issue, but also puts line managers in a better position to identify problems before they become too much to handle.
No quick fix
It is important to recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to dealing with stress. What might be helpful for one person may not work for another. What is clear, however, is that encouraging regular communication between line managers and their team is crucial.
A very common reaction when faced with a stressed worker is to try to ‘relieve the burden’ by taking tasks away from them, but such a move can be a mistake. Many people can end up feeling even more stressed due to a sense of failure or inadequacy.
This means that it is vital for HR professionals to personalise their approach. Have a conversation with the individual concerned – or encourage their line manager to do so – in order to try and establish the root causes of their stress. The situation might not even be related to work and may, therefore, be outside of your control – in which case simply listening in an active way may prove helpful.
Given today’s economically difficult times, stress levels and emotions are more likely to be running high, which means that HR professionals will need to provide guidance on how to manage the situation:
Look out for signs of stress, which generally take the form of unusual behaviour patterns. These can include being distracted, impatient, missing deadlines and seeming anxious or frustrated.
2. Regular review
Introduce the ‘team temperature check’ as a normal part of meetings and business-as-usual.
3. Supportive environment
Ensure colleagues feel safe enough to mention if they believe others are suffering from stress, without either of them worrying that their actions will be viewed in a negative light.
4. Individual approach
Understand each employee’s own normal stress levels and recognise when they are starting to over-do it. Self-awareness and the belief by workers they have their manager’s support are both very important.
5. Watch for presenteeism
Another worrying trend is the growing number of employees who struggle into work even when ill, at least partially due to concerns that having too much sick leave could be taken into consideration when selecting redundancy targets.
Such an attitude indicates high levels of stress because the sensible course of action is outweighed by anxiety. As a result, a clear message should be given that it is more beneficial to take time to recuperate rather than work ineffectively and risk passing illness onto others.
The idea is that, once people become so stressed that they have to be signed off work to recover, it becomes a much more complex and time-consuming matter to support them back to health. The trick, therefore, is to catch the situation before it goes too far.