Stress in the workplace - who takes responsibility?

Paul Barrett
Head of Wellbeing
Bank Workers Charity
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This article has been written to tie in with National Stress Awareness Day (NSAD) on November 6th. This year will be the 15th annual NSAD.

The recent CIPD Absence Management report revealed that stress is on the increase. This is despite the fact that more organisations than ever are investing in comprehensive employee wellbeing strategies. These are designed to build the resilience of their workforce and to offer support to those suffering from stress. There is every reason to believe such strategies are making a difference but they may not be enough. Why should this be?

A tough world out there.

It needs to be recognised that at this moment in time, there is a coming together of factors, economic and social, that conspire to make employees’ personal and work boundaries more difficult to negotiate than ever.

The economic climate is unforgiving. Many businesses are restructuring and reducing the size of their workforce, particularly in the public sector, as the government’s austerity measures take hold.  In the circumstances it’s not surprising that many employees are experiencing high levels of job insecurity. We are also seeing unprecedented levels of presenteeism, as employees avoid taking sick leave when it may be medically appropriate to do so. A new survey from Canada Life found that presenteeism was reaching epidemic proportions and fear of redundancy was one of the key drivers.  When they feel their jobs to be at risk employees don’t want to stick their head above the parapet. Better to stay quiet and hope the storm passes.

Much research has been done into the stresses experienced by the sandwich generation; those caring for children and elderly relatives, whilst trying to hold down demanding jobs. In a climate of uncertainty many prefer not to discuss their caring problems with their employers for fear of finding themselves expendable. A possible manifestation of this can be found in the results of a recent survey  from  Vouchercloud, who found that one in six UK employees called in sick when they had caring problems over half term. Our own research into the banking sector revealed that non- work demands form a major source of stress for people in work, yet at present these are not being well addressed. Many employees struggling with debt or in the throes of a divorce find it difficult to access support. As austerity bites many of the support agencies in the community that employees traditionally turn to are finding their resources stretched to the limit as they seek to respond to rising demand with reduced funding. With all of this going on, it’s no surprise that stress levels are high...so why aren’t traditional approaches to stress enough?

The way forward – there is no silver bullet

The complex interplay between personal and workplace demands means that any strategy that seeks to prevent or ameliorate employee stress needs to come from a number of directions and historic approaches to stress may not serve us well.

In the 1980s many organisations offered stress management courses to employees to help them cope when it all became too much. These courses contained sound information,  were frequently popular with participants but they  implicitly devolved responsibility for managing stress onto the employee. More recently the focus has shifted towards the employer’s duty of care and businesses have taken steps to address the organisational factors that contribute to employee stress.  Many organisations now have employee assistance programmes in place to help employees who struggle and offer structured wellbeing programmes to improve the health of their workforce.

Forward thinking employers have already begun to introduce interventions that affect the organisational culture in positive ways, creating an environment that reduces  workplace stress. Such preventative approaches include training for managers in promoting behaviours that support employee wellbeing, whilst discouraging  those that increase pressure on employees. These can make a big difference to the stress levels in the workplace. They also go a long way  to creating an organisational climate in which employees feel able to raise concerns and  seek help when they’re struggling,  so that problems from home or work don’t spiral out of control.

As many sources of stress originate not at work but in employees’ personal lives they need to recognise their own part in reducing the impact of stress.  They too have a responsibility for building up their internal resources so they are equipped to deal with the inevitable stresses they encounter in their daily lives. People with high levels of personal resilience are much more likely to recover well from high stress life events such as bereavement, relationship breakdown or redundancy.

But personal resilience needs to be worked at. Employees need to take care of themselves, ensuring their work-life balance is not out of kilter. They need to make sure that they get enough sleep, that they take regular exercise and that they eat healthily. They also need to accommodate enough of the life-enhancing leisure activities that will restore optimism, vitality and peace of mind. Bolstered by these actions employees will enjoy a more rewarding life both at home and at work and will bounce back more quickly  from setbacks they experience in either sphere.

What we are seeing is the need for a holistic, almost systemic approach to stress that recognises the complex interactions between the home and working lives of employees. It is one that appreciates that responsibility for addressing stress at work resides exclusively with neither employer nor employee.  Creating a healthy workforce requires both parties to play their part.   

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