As an HR professional you have many roles within a business. You are there to advise on and implement workplace policy, manage recruitment processes and possibly most importantly, manage employee wellbeing. Businesses rely on their people to help drive productivity and the bottom-line and therefore when employee health is declining, business performance often does too.
One health issue that we know is affecting employees up and down the country and is taking its toll on businesses is stress. In 2014, 11.3 million working days were lost to stress, anxiety and depression in the UK. In terms of the knock on effect on businesses, it’s massive, with workload management often heavily affected. Whether stress is caused by circumstances at home or at work, it can have a significant impact on an individual and subsequently other team members, and businesses must be prepared for any effects this might have on an employee in a professional capacity. For HR professionals, this presents a particular challenge as they have a duty of care to their employees, yet must balance this with what’s best for the business, working out what can be done to improve its performance. This juggling act sometimes results in one stakeholder not liking the outcome, but employee health has to come first.
To lessen the negative influence of stress, both employees and organisations must become more resilient. Managers in particular play a crucial role in creating an appropriate culture, which must be visible in the company from the top down. However, for managers to achieve this, HR must play a leading role in training, supporting and ensuring they are ready to tackle this sensitive topic. This includes providing them with the right materials (such as directing them to any occupational health services such as Employee Assistance Programmes if available) to effectively support an employee.
However, this is not necessarily easy as all employees will have different levels of healthy tension, the level of work that keeps them working at their most productive. Additionally, employees will respond differently to additional pressure, and no one can predict an employee’s breaking point. Stress can be a driving factor in this and arises when these further pressures build up and the individual feels they can’t control all the demands placed on them.
We cannot eliminate every stress in our daily lives. However, we can learn to identify triggers and develop strategies to effectively manage stress. People in your organisation must recognise individuals suffering with ongoing periods of significant stress; otherwise they risk the employee reaching a fatigue point and exhaustion setting in. In addition, their productivity will drop, and if the situation continues at the same rate the individual could be on the path to mental ill health or a breakdown.
An episode of extreme stress can lead to burnout, recovery from which is a slow journey. Full recovery normally involves time off work and gradual rehabilitation back into the workplace which would be led by HR. The classic signs of impending burnout are a growing emotional, mental or physical exhaustion that is not alleviated by sleep, an increasing sense of being cut off from other people, and decreasing ability to perform routine tasks to the usual standard.
It is essential that managers within your business are able to recognise the early signs of stress especially when it moves towards unhealthy levels. Therefore, you need to give them the tools to support employees who are under excessive pressure. The following tips can help HR professionals to reduce overbearing pressure on those under strain whilst helping you to take the lead and put procedures in place to prevent major future disruptions.
- Identify the hazards – work out what may cause excessive pressure or demand on members of your team. Identifying potential problems gives you time to put measures in place before they become a bigger issue
- Decide who may be at risk – are some people in more demanding roles than others? Are some dealing with difficult issues outside of work? Knowing who’s under pressure can help you monitor wellbeing
- Assess the risk – work out how likely the impact is to occur and how severe it may be. This includes having contingency plans for unexpected absences
- Normalise a closed door – the current design of many workplaces is open plan and it can be very obvious that a meeting with sensitive content is being held. This can then result in staff not requesting a much needed meeting to discuss their situation. As the HR team, try and make it normal to have regular meetings with other team members behind closed doors, as this will remove barriers to open communication and make the situation less intimidating
- Record the findings – decide on any action required to eliminate the source of stress. Could you offer flexible working, counselling, or time off to attend medical appointments? Talk to employees and establish what they think would or has helped them resolve the issue. HR is in an advantageous position as you are a neutral, confidential source to help employees, so talking to employees is as vital as understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all approach
- Review the assessment – ascertain the effectiveness of the interventions and revise where appropriate. Set the HR department goals and work towards resolving issues step by step. Being proactive is vital in realising and negating problems and will pay off
- Look at your company culture – creating a culture where employees feel secure enough to talk about mental health concerns is a major breakthrough. To support this, implement a process where employees are part of the agreed support process and involved in proposals
Putting these steps in place will help you and your colleagues in other people management roles if any of your employees experience episodes of stress. This will ultimately benefit not just your employees, but the morale of your team and the bottom line of your business.
- Nicki Cresswell: How HR departments can manage employee stress effectively - Tuesday, April 21, 2015