Managing stress in the workplace

Written by: Adam Bernstein
Published on: 9 Apr 2021
Category:

vet with head in hands

Image: © Robert Kneschke / Adobe Stock

Stress is a fact of modern life. None of us is exempt, and most learn how to cope with it.

Occasionally, though, stress can become unrelenting and excessive, and this can cause an individual to experience some unpleasant physical and mental symptoms.

But stress is not the same for everyone; we all have varying threshold levels and different strategies to deal with it.

A certain amount of stress is necessary for normal functioning, and it keeps us active, alert and able to deal with life’s problems.

When functioning normally, we take the usual frustrations, long hours or routine work in our stride. But in certain circumstances, stress can become a real drain on our physical and mental resources.

To drive the point home, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – in a paper published in November 2020 – found that “in 2019-20, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51 per cent of all work-related ill health and 55 per cent of all days lost due to work-related ill-health” (HSE, 2020).

It’s interesting that the HSE found six key causes of stress in the workplace – demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Logically, employers should keep these in mind when considering how they can put support in place for employees.

Whether it’s worry over lockdowns, being made redundant, working longer hours following staff cutbacks, pressure to meet rising client expectations or a lack of control over how an individual works, stress is a real problem.

Legal implications

Beyond the statistics, stress can have legal implications, too.

Employers have a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees in the workplace – including stress. They must undertake risk assessments, then consider the results of those assessments and take any necessary steps to reduce the risks.

Also, employers need to consider their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 as stress can amount to a disability.

But just as employers have obligations, so do employees. While no requirement exists for employees to inform their employers of how they are feeling, or put employers on notice that they are feeling unwell, any employee who does not inform his or her employer of the stress he or she is suffering in work may find it difficult to pursue complaints around the support – or lack of – provided by the employer.

As some employers have discovered, stress can be very expensive should an employee take a case to the Employment Tribunal. Detailed under “general damages for psychiatric injury”, awards can range from £1,000 to £5,000 for less severe cases to between £50,000 to £100,000 for the most severe cases. Then there’s the matter of special damages, which could be substantial if an individual was well paid – as well as an award for loss of income and medical expenses, the costs of defending the case and reputational damage.

Watch out

The early warning signs of stress buildup are often associated with increased muscular tension.

Frequent headaches and muscular tension in the neck, shoulders, back and stomach are commonly experienced. Some may feel their heart beating rapidly. Clenched hands, profuse sweating, general restlessness with agitation and snappiness are other symptoms.

Problems that affect work, social life, or family life increase stress. Similarly, bereavement, relationship problems, work relocation, unemployment or financial worries can leave us vulnerable.

Associated illnesses linked with stress buildup are well recognised. These include anxiety, depression, eczema, psoriasis, tension headaches, migraine attacks, stomach ulcers and phobias. A link also exists between stress and high blood pressure, which is one of the factors that may eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Stress can lead to mental confusion, with an inability to think clearly and effectively. Memory can fail and simple things get forgotten, trivial work chores often take on a far greater significance than they deserve, and things can get blown out of all proportion. Some cannot delegate tasks and others try to do everything themselves.

Solutions

No magic cure exists for stress and its physical effects. Some self-medicate for headaches and upset stomachs; others turn to their doctor or even self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.

What were once considered to be safe medications are now known to produce psychological dependence and addiction, and doctors don’t prescribe freely. To an extent, individuals should try to learn how to recognise and manage stress and anxiety.

Many well-established techniques exist for recognising and managing stress. The best known is yoga, but meditation, self‑hypnosis, muscular relaxation exercises and music therapy can help, too. The internet, including YouTube, can help with these techniques.

But sight shouldn’t be lost of the stress management classes that doctors’ surgeries can offer.

Create a plan of action

Other forms of self-help revolve around trying to plan the day and time management.

If possible, take a short break from work and take a brisk walk. Learn how to become more assertive to deal with people who make unreasonable demands. Spreading the workload and delegating jobs can help, too.

But also look at diet – and include a wide range of fruit, vegetables, pasta and brown rice.

It’s important to allow time for relaxation. If smoking, alcohol and lack of sleep are a key feature of life, seek to address this. While cigarette or alcohol consumption may relieve stress in the short term, it won’t help in the long run.

Some of the harmful effects of stress can be reduced through exercise. Exercise is an opportunity to get rid of pent-up energy and experience a change of environment. The relaxation that occurs following physical exercise can aid sleep. Exercise that is age appropriate and matches the general level of fitness is more likely to be sustained.

Conclusion

Stress isn’t going away any time soon, and both employers and employees need to recognise when it’s occurring, and find solutions to mitigate its impact.

Failing to address the problem isn’t going to help the employee – and it won’t do much for the organisation either.

Reference

HSE (2020). Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2020, https://bit.ly/30VQ1S4