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How to reduce workplace stress

How HR and employers can help to reduce workplace stress this Stress Awareness Month

Dealing with stress in the workplace is an increasingly important issue that organisations can’t afford to ignore. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that in 2021/22, there were an estimated 914,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in an estimated 17 million working days lost.

Workplace stress and mental health figures are rising

A report by Deloitte estimates that the total annual cost of poor mental health to employers has increased by 25% since 2019, costing UK employers up to £56 billion a year.

The HSE has long warned of the growing crisis in stress and poor mental health related to work and in response, launched a major campaign last year to remind employers of their responsibilities to their employees’ mental health.

The law relating to stress in the workplace

Whatever size the organisation, all employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees at work. This includes care for the mental health of their employees. In particular, employers must carry out risk assessments of the health and safety risks employees may be exposed to while at work and for organisations with five or more employees, the significant findings of the assessment should be recorded as well as any group of employees being particularly at risk.

To help address work-related stress, the HSE has a wide variety of advice and guidance for employers including template risk assessments. HSE has also identified six key areas of work design known as the Management Standards, that if not properly managed can lead to work related stress. Employers should assess the risks in these areas in order to manage stress in the workplace.

What are the HSE Management Standards?

The HSE Management Standards are:

  • Demands – including workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support – including encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships – including promoting a positive work environment by dealing with unacceptable behaviour and avoiding conflict
  • Role – whether individuals understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change – how organisational change is managed and communicated.

Practical steps employers and HR can take to reduce workplace stress

The first step for organisations is to decide upon a mental health strategy. This will include considering how to raise awareness of the issue of mental health with employees, such as the preparation and communication of a stress and mental wellbeing policy and fundamentally, how to tackle the causes of work-related mental ill health.  Employers should aim to create a workplace culture where staff feel able to talk about their mental health and equally support staff who are experiencing mental ill health.

The Mental Health at Work Commitment is a set of actions organised into six standards that organisations can follow to improve the support of their employees’ mental health.

This is an organisational strategy for managing stress in the workplace, rather than focusing on specific individuals – the advantage being that a larger number of employees can benefit from any actions taken.

The six key areas covered by the Commitment are:

  • Prioritise mental health in the workplace by developing a plan and delivering a systematic programme of activity. When creating the plan, you should draw from best practice and seek the views of employees, specifically exploring feedback from people who have experienced mental health issues. Senior buy-in, including at board level, is vital.
  • Proactively ensure work design and organisational culture drive positive mental health outcomes. This includes providing employees with good physical workplace conditions, creating opportunities for employees to feed back when culture and conditions are driving poor mental health.
  • Promote an open culture around mental health by increasing awareness of mental health and challenging the stigma attached. Encourage two-way conversations about mental health by empowering individuals to champion the issue and highlight the support available at all stages of employment.
  • Increase organisational confidence and capability through regular training, information and awareness-raising for staff and managers. This should include awareness about where to signpost for support and encouraging managers to think about employee mental health in all aspects of their role including during inductions, one to one as well as team and return-to-work meetings.
  • Provide mental health tools and support and make sure that employees are aware of the help, tools and services available to them. It’s important to note that employers don’t just signpost, but actively promote the use of such tools and services including employee assistance programmes.
  • Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting, using robust external frameworks such as the Business in the Community Responsible Business Tracker and Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index. Tools such as these can help identify areas to focus on for improvement as well as demonstrate an employer’s commitment to the wellbeing of its most important asset, its people.

Proactive approach to stress management is key

Organisations should focus their efforts on identifying the main risks of stress to its people and implementing measures to reduce or eradicate them. Early intervention can help prevent stress from escalating by identifying and addressing issues before they become more serious. This can help employees feel supported and prevent more significant problems, such as burnout or mental health issues, from arising.

Line managers play a crucial role in identifying and managing stress in their teams. Employers should ensure that line managers are provided with the necessary training and resources to support their team’s wellbeing effectively. Despite the increasing expectation for line managers to look after people’s health and wellbeing, many employers do not provide adequate training and support.

Legal implications of work-related stress

If an employee raises a complaint about work-related stress, they may consider bringing a claim against their employer. This could involve a range of potential claims, which can often become complicated. For instance, determining whether medical conditions caused by stress have a significant and long-term adverse impact on an employee’s day-to-day activities and whether they may amount to a disability, could pose a significant challenge for employers.

Unfortunately, it appears inevitable that instances of work-related stress will continue to increase. In a challenging recruitment environment, employers who take genuine steps to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their staff are more likely to succeed.

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