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Portia Hickey

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Stress in the workplace: four ways HR can help alleviate this prevalent employee burden


Stress in the workplace can reduce productivity and negatively affect staff health. But with the right support system in place it can be managed to create a better working environment for everyone.

According to a survey by online work management platform Wrike, 94% of workers experience stress, with almost a third describing their stress levels as unsustainably high.

In addition, more than half claimed to lose sleep due to workplace stress; many even said they would quit their jobs before admitting that they are struggling to their employers. The truly worrying thing is how common such scenarios are.

Working with numerous FTSE 100 companies and law firms, I have seen how much workplace stress can affect our lives outside of work. For example, loss of sleep can also affect our wider mental and physical health.

Advances in mobile technology now mean that many of us take our work home, in fact the Wrike survey found that many employees use up to 16 different apps in one day.

If someone has more on their plate than they can manage, they will overwork themselves and still feel like they have failed

This may be why more than 11% of the survey respondents feel that work stress negatively affects their home lives every day. It may also be why so many of us feel anxious at work.

A common factor in all of this is workload management – if someone has more on their plate than they can manage, they will overwork themselves and still feel like they have failed. This contributes to stress and the feeling of being overworked worsens over time.

Finding a solution

Thankfully, many workplaces are now recognising the links between feeling overworked and feeling stressed. Some of them are even taking drastic steps to address this issue.

In July 2018, for example, The New York Times reported on how a company in New Zealand adopted a four day working week but continued paying its employees for five days of work.

The company’s founder, Andrew Barnes, chose to do this after reading that many people spend less than three hours a day working productively. And the change, it is fair to say, was successful: “Supervisors said staff were more creative, their attendance was better, they were on time, and they didn’t leave early or take long breaks,” Mr. Haar said. “Their actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five.”

This example shows that time does not equal productivity or performance. Whilst it is unlikely that companies are going to quickly shift to four day working weeks, there are four simple things that any employer can do to reduce workplace stress and boost productivity.

1. Clarify priorities

Most of us will have experienced feeling overwhelmed at work. Usually, this is because we’re trying to do too much at once and or because we feel a lack of control.

To prevent this, all you need to do is simplify and clarify your goals. Try distilling your goals into up to three key priorities for work teams each day. This will let employees focus their time and effort on the actions that are likely to have the biggest impact on the overall mission of the team, while also lowering their likelihood of feeling overwhelmed or out of control.

2. It’s good to talk

Stress is always made worse by isolation. This can be common in workplaces where people don’t feel able to be open about their mental wellbeing.

Providing a safe space where people can talk about their stress levels can reduce feelings of isolation and help them deal constructively with what they are experiencing, creating a healthier working environment.

Digital agency Rocketmakers has a Slack channel dedicated to discussing mental wellbeing. This means that staff have a safe place to share their thoughts when they’re feeling stressed or exhausted and where co-workers can offer suggestions and support.

3. Effective line management

Line managers who role model positive behaviour, such as taking regular short breaks at work, not working on holidays and looking after their own health, tacitly provide permission for others to do the same.

Moreover, research has shown that training managers how to recognise problems and support mental wellness has a big impact in terms of improving the wellbeing of staff.

Many organisations, such as the Bank of England, are now investing in this type of training. This has boosted overall morale at these companies, as well as improving employees’ views of their employers.

4. Use technology wisely

Technology can help to simplify employee’s lives and collaborative work management software can streamline people’s workloads. They offer templates for assigning tasks, creating deadlines and managing workload. This makes it much easier for employees to prioritise important tasks and focus on their job, which can reduce stress in the process.

These systems also allow managers to track how much work each team member has without having to ask for a copy of their task list. They can see when someone may be struggling and provide support or assistance when required. Simple automation can make a big difference to how people manage their time and how productive an employee is.

These actions can go a long way to creating a workplace in which every employee feels focussed, supported and productive. Since a thriving worker is a loyal worker, you won’t have to worry about losing your top staff to competitors. What more could an employer want than that?

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Portia Hickey


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