Stressed out: Who is looking after HR?

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Stressed out

HR is responsible for implementing wellbeing policies but what happens when they get stressed? Alan King provides advice on how HR professionals can deal with stress at work.

In 2006, an HR professional at Intel, the world's largest computer chip maker, was awarded more than £114,000 after she became so stressed at work she had a nervous breakdown. This is clearly an extreme case of workplace stress that went unmanaged and unchecked, but this woman is certainly not alone.

There are hugely differing levels of work-related stress and research shows that stress levels have increased in recent years. Most organisations now recognise the business benefits that are associated with a healthy workforce and are prepared to invest in the wellbeing of their employees.

In practice this means HR creates a range of policies, training and tools to improve employee wellbeing. But what about HR professionals? Are they being forgotten?

Being a 'people person' is stressful

While managers and public sector workers reportedly suffer most with stress, the vast majority of people will experience workplace stress at some point. According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), just 9 per cent of employees report their job is not at all stressful. In fact, the same research shows around one in five people experience high levels of stress at work and 44 per cent of people feel under excessive pressure once or twice a week or more.

"It's not always easy for individuals to admit they are suffering stress, especially if they are actually responsible for creating and delivering the organisation's stress management policy."

The good news is that employers recognise people are the key to business success, but with people-related costs being one of the most expensive overheads, HR is under increasing pressure to get the best from their people and show return on investment.

Combined with the ongoing people issues and cut-throat decisions HR often needs to make (including redundancies, grievances and dismissals), being an HR professional can be a very stressful role.

Acknowledge stress is an issue

It's not always easy for individuals to admit they are suffering stress, especially if they are actually responsible for creating and delivering the organisation's stress management policy. But with three-quarters of employees saying stress adversely affects health, happiness, home-life and performance at work, it is important to try and deal with this stress.

It is not acceptable to ignore it, try and continue as 'normal' and hope it goes away. Doing this is not healthy for the individual or the business.

Before tackling stress, it is important to understand the cause. Research identifies workload, by some way, as the number one cause of work-related stress, followed by management style and organisational change. Other significant causes of work-related stress are relationships at work, pressure to meet targets, and lack of support from line managers.

Combating stress at work

So what needs to be done to combat work-related stress? The first positive step is to speak with someone about how you're feeling.

Employee Advisory Resource often takes calls from people at very different points on the emotional spectrum; some people have coped up to a point and are looking for guidance in moving forward while others - and these make up a majority of calls - are right at the beginning of the process and struggling to deal with their situation.

Finally, here are some tips on helping yourself to manage your stress:

  • There is no shame whatsoever in saying you need help – to seek a solution you need to admit there is a problem.
  • Identify the cause – you need to identify the root of the problem before you can start to address it. Is the catalyst for your stress at home, at work or a combination of both?
  • Address problems outside the office – these can impact on our attitude to and performance at work so they must be tackled. Perhaps you need some time off or would benefit from more flexible working arrangements?
  • Pinpoint the problems at work – what is it about your role and responsibility that is causing you stress? It might be an unreasonably heavy workload or taking on new projects. How can these issues be managed? Would it help to ask for additional support or would you benefit from updating your own skills and knowledge in a specific area?
  • Take a step back to analyse your situation - it is often much easier to focus on the small things that make you stressed. Whilst these aren’t important, look at the bigger picture and consider your situation from a fresh angle.
  • Don't suffer in silence – it is not a crime to suffer from stress. You will be more productive at work and happier in the long-run if you speak to someone and try to deal with the problem. No matter who your boss is – the CEO, financial director or the HRD – they want you to be able to perform at your best and the longer you remain stressed, the more likely your work will be affected.
  • Seek help from a range of sources - if you don't feel your boss is approachable and can’t turn to a colleague think about the other procedures you have in place, such as information about managing stress and access to the employee helpline.

Alan King is president of Employee Advisory Resource.

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By alawler
26th Feb 2008 13:31

Dear Alan

Thank you for this very helpful article.

I think this raises a couple of very interesting points. As a stress management specialist myself, I find that employers generally fall into one of three categories :

1. Those who do understand the benefits to their business of healthy and well employees and are committed to providing an environment which encourages and invests in wellbeing.

2. Those who will pay 'lip service' to it and who do just enough to tick the boxes, but who haven't grasped that there would be more benefit to treating the issue seriously and

3. Those who are closed to the idea.

I would like to think that most employers see the value of having a healthy workforce who are able to manage stress effectively as you say, but, in my view, I think we may have some way to go yet.

I also think you raise a really good point about people being willing to admit to being stressed. This can be tricky because many people feel their careers may be adversely affected if they do admit to being stressed, so I like the way you phrase your comments about this.

Interesting too (and in my view, of most importance), is the issue you raise about who is looking after those who are responsible for spotting undue stress in their teams. Whilst I know many employers do excellent work on this and make sure their people are well equipped to deal with this, there is still a large number who give people responsibility for spotting and dealing with undue stress without any training. How are they supposed to know what is undue stress or how to deal with it, if they don't know what to look for in the first place or don't understand the implications?

I really enjoyed your article and think it had some very valuable information in it, but feel we still have some way to go to help employers to understand the importance of investing in well and productive teams.

Best wishes

Annie Lawler
Breathing Space for Business

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