Work is not always the key factor behind pressured people coming down with stress, but it can be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Work is not always the key factor behind pressured people coming down with stress, but it can be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

How pro-active management can reduce stress levels and sickness absence.

by Clive James, Training Development Manager, St John Ambulance.

The nation’s stress levels have continued to increase this year with the tough economic climate being a major factor. In Britain work-related stress, depression or anxiety already accounts for approximately 11.4 million reported lost working days per year with 415,000 individuals believing they are experiencing workplace stress at a level that is making them ill.* Let’s not confuse stress with a little bit of ‘healthy tension’ which can often encourage better performance.

Workplace stress is a growing issue which is having an impact on businesses nationwide. Around 16.7% of all working individuals in 2009 thought that their job is very or extremely stressful.**It is more important than ever for businesses to start looking at this issue to see how they can minimise, if not prevent, stress amongst their employees.

Unlike other health and safety issues, stress is not tangible, which makes it all the more difficult to manage or measure. Common signs and symptoms include increased susceptibility to colds and other infections, headaches, tiredness, short temperedness, loss of motivation, to excessive smoking and drinking.

Considering this, stress can often go unnoticed, but that does not mean it should be ignored. It stands to reason that if people are less stressed in the workplace they produce a better quality of work and take less sick leave.

On average if someone is off sick with work-related stress, they are absent for 26.8 days ***. This is a wide contrast from the typical two to three days taken off for physical illnesses. The impact of this on a business can be huge, when you consider the financial and resource implications from having to pay for temporary workers, sick leave, or in the most severe cases, having to employ and train new staff.

Pro-active management of stress is an almost guaranteed way to reduce stress levels and therefore reduce the level of sickness absence, which can in turn lead to reduced turnover and increased profitability. Although it is encouraging to see that more businesses are showing an interest in this area, many still need help to identify, prevent and treat the symptoms and effects of stress in the workplace. HR and people management professionals are perfectly positioned to take this on. The first step to resolving this issue is to attend some kind of stress management course. These are widely available for employers as well as employees and can provide tips on how to identify the early signs of stress and what measures to take to avoid it.

Given the seasonal festivities currently underway, it would be easy to think that stress levels will be lower, this is not the case. With the recession and the added financial pressure of Christmas stress levels could be raised further still so it is important to bear this in mind with staff. Work is not always the key factor behind pressured people coming down with stress, but it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Worries over the credit crunch, job security, childcare and the late shopping rush could all mount up during the festive season, and those working in shops, pubs and restaurants could find themselves under greater pressure than normal. These issues are not independent of each other and in most cases can often have a knock on effect.

Office Christmas parties are often seen as a good way for staff to temporarily let their hair down, and although this is a good way of encouraging camaraderie and building team spirit, they are by no means a guaranteed way to combat stress over the festive period. Employers should avoid putting too much pressure on people to “have fun” through organised Christmas activities with work colleagues. Most employees will respond better to less structured events when stress levels are already high. Not everyone is keen to run onto the dancefloor at a staff party, so it’s best not put additional pressure on them

The Christmas period is the time when most businesses look back over the past year’s successes and failures and plan for the year ahead. This is the perfect opportunity to add employee health and stress management to the agenda and look to implement long-term initiatives and programmes that will reduce stress. There are a number of steps that can be put in place, varying in time, cost and resource requirements. The feasibility of these does of course depend on the type of industry and workplace in question.


Communication is the underlying factor that can determine the success of any programme. Without employers and employees having clear channels of communication, even the most modern state-of-the-art programmes can fail.
Staff committees are good for getting to the bottom of stress issues as they encourage communication between peer groups. Other popular actions include changes in management procedures, establishing regular stress management training, counselling or an employee’s assistance program (EAP).

Although it cannot be fully implemented in all industries, flexible working is a good initiative. Flexible working does not simply mean a change in working hours. Most employees would be happy to know that their employers are willing to show some degree of flexibility where possible.

In order to execute a successful stress management programme, employers should follow six key steps:

1. Identify the hazard – look at what the possible causes of stress could be
2. Decide who might be harmed and how – you may find that certain departments / teams are at higher risk
3. Evaluate the risk – what areas do you immediately need to focus on and what might you be able to do to help in the short and long-term
4. Put control measures in place – work with employees to implement positive measures to combat stress
5. Record your findings – it is important to keep detailed records in order to review them and asses what else might need to be done
6. Monitor and review – don’t be afraid to admit that previous attempts to lower stress levels have not worked. Be open to ideas and work closely with staff to get to the root of the problems and provide regular updates

In terms of quick, easy and less expensive actions, there are a number of simple initiatives that can be introduced to quickly improve the working environment. Rather than investing in an onsite gym, some employees might appreciate having a way to relieve stress like having a punch bag in the office – this has proved a success for some of the world’s leading organisations. Setting up a ‘time-out room’ to give staff a quiet place to work or have a five minute break can also work wonders.

One of the simplest steps that is forgotten far too often is praise. Managers are often quick to reprimand poor work and slow to praise strong work, but the impact a few words can make is very surprising.

The thing to remember about stress management in the workplace is that there is not one quick-fix solution and the key to implementing a successful stress management programme is communication between the employer and staff. Something as simple as an email questionnaire is a quick way to get feedback. By demonstrating commitment and interest in employees’ wellbeing, stress can become a thing of the past for any industry or workplace.

* – The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH)
** – The 2009 Psychosocial Working Conditions (PWC) survey
*** – THOR (The Health Occupation Reporting Network) surveillance data from General Practitioners

by Clive James, Training Development Manager, St John Ambulance.