Becky Wright: HR’s unique opportunity to build a happier, less stressful workplace

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With the nights drawing in and Christmas on the horizon, it seems like November is the perfect time of year for Stress Awareness Day and International Stress Awareness Week.

Though there are plenty of articles packed with stress-busting tips or the latest meditation technique, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on some of the causes of stress and where there are opportunities for prevention.

For many of us, work is a significant cause of stress. Westfield Health’s most recent Wellbeing Index found that the average employee has taken four days off for stress, anxiety or depression over the last three months, and 39 per cent of HR professionals report an increase in long-term sign off.

This has a huge impact on business performance: the UK lost 15.4 million working days in 2017/18 due to stress — a cost we can barely afford given that we’re lagging 16 per cent behind other G7 nations in terms of productivity.

People really are a company’s most valuable asset, so as the people-focused function of the business, how can HR help negate the impact of stress to create a happier, healthier and more productive workforce?

Wellbeing has become a hot topic over the last few years with more and more companies starting to put wellbeing strategies in place. In some HR teams, there will be a dedicated wellbeing champion, but there’s a responsibility and an opportunity to mitigate stress across the HR function.

All members of the HR team are uniquely placed to minimise and mitigate workplace stress through prevention, education and intervention.

It starts before there’s even someone in post. Investing time in job profiling, taking the opportunity to map out not only the skills needed, but what kind of person would thrive in that role.

It’s about more than just ticking the boxes in terms of whether they have the right skills to do the job — it’s about finding the right cultural fit. When someone feels comfortable at work, when they feel like they can be themselves, they not only feel less stressed but they do their best work.

Once an employee has joined the team, HR has an opportunity to bring the best out of that person and create an environment — both physical and cultural — where they can thrive.

As most HR professionals know, the role can be incredibly broad. Though it probably wouldn’t be top of many HR teams’ to-do list, there’s a real opportunity to mitigate stress with smart workspace design.

The environment in which we work has a significant impact on performance. Research has shown that incorporating natural elements into the office boosts wellbeing levels by 15 per cent, productivity by 6 per cent and creativity by 15 per cent.

Whilst architects can design a great, functional office, there’s an opportunity for HR to make it the perfect space for that company. Whether it’s quiet zones, breakout areas or exercise spaces, HR’s unique insight into the company can help create an office environment that minimises stress and maximises performance.

Beyond the physical environment, smart policies can help businesses prevent and avoid stress before it starts. Initiatives like flexible working give employees the ability to manage their time in a way that works for them; early salary payments can help relieve financial stress. There are a whole range of options.

Picking which policies will provide the biggest benefit for your team can seem overwhelming. Using surveys and interviews to engage with employees on what would best help them is a crucial step to putting in place the right solutions that empower rather than restrict your team.

As well as helping prevent stress through smart recruitment and policies, HR have an important role to play in terms of education and intervention at difficult moments in the employee journey.

This is especially true when it comes to managing performance. Taking a business partner approach and working closely with managers can help identify performance issues early.

Whether it’s due to a difficult home situation or a lack of engagement with the role, underperformance often leads to stress for both the employee, their manager and their team.

HR’s role here is crucial. As a neutral party, they can communicate with all stakeholders to help unpick the reason behind underperformance and develop an action plan.

This could then draw on other HR functions, such as Learning & Development. For example, underperformance as a result of poor time management could result in an external workshop on time management best practices to build those soft skills, minimising stress and boosting performance.

Whether it manifests itself as underperformance or in another way, when stress really becomes too much for an employee, HR also have an opportunity to provide support and stop stress escalating into burnout.

The mental and physical impacts of stress are not to be underestimated and will usually need professional support outside of the work environment. Putting in place initiatives like Mental Health First Aiders and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) can help signpost employees to the right support if stress levels get too high.

There’s then an opportunity for HR to break that stress cycle and prevent it happening again with techniques such as adjustments, phased returns and amended workloads once an employee is ready to return to work.

Whether it’s prevention, education or intervention, keeping stress in check and fostering an environment that gets the most out of employees is a responsibility and opportunity that sits with all members of the HR team.

HR’s mandate to look across the breadth of the business, interacting and learning from people throughout their employee journey, gives a unique opportunity to create a human-focused work experience that puts the employee first and delivers business results.

Taking a whole employee journey view and preventative approach mitigates both the likelihood of stress and its impact when stressful situations do arise, helping individuals and the business to reach its potential.

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About Becky Wright

Becky Wright joined Westfield Health as chief people officer in July 2019. As well as 15 years’ experience in progressive people strategies at companies including First Direct and Aviva, Becky is also a passionate advocate for health and wellbeing. Her focus at Westfield Health is building strategies to support organisation growth by creating a people-centric approach that enables the business to attract and retain top talent and building on its IiP Gold accreditation to become a top UK employer.

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