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Workplace stress: Signs, symptoms and embedding a wellbeing culture

Stress affects us all in so many ways, and comes at us from so many sources that it can sometimes feel overwhelming. While some degree of stress is unavoidable, there are times when it can pile up and seriously affect our day-to-day lives. With workplace stress being one of the biggest and most pressing sources of stress, there is no better time to discuss stress in the workplace, what causes it and why it’s so important to create a calmer, healthier and more productive employee experience.

Stress affects us all in so many ways, and comes at us from so many sources that it can sometimes feel overwhelming. While some degree of stress is unavoidable, there are times when it can pile up and seriously affect our day-to-day lives. 

With workplace stress being one of the biggest and most pressing sources of stress, there is no better time to discuss stress in the workplace, what causes it and why it’s so important to create a calmer, healthier and more productive employee experience.

What is Workplace Stress?

Workplace stress is the psychological strain we experience when there is a mismatch between our job demands and our ability to cope with them. The term is usually reserved to describe persistent issues and struggles, rather than isolated incidents, or ‘bad days’. 

Despite our growing understanding of human psychology and all the opportunities afforded to us through technology, work-related stress remains an ongoing problem throughout the world — in fact, it’s an issue that appears to be worsening. We lose 17.1 million workdays each year due to stress, depression and anxiety and in a study of 2,000 UK adults, 23% agreed that work was a source of stress. Mind has said work is the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives, sharing that 57% of people say they drink after work to deal with the pressure.

What Are the Leading Causes of Stress in the Workplace?

There has been a great deal of research into the main drivers of workplace stress, and the following are generally agreed to be the most common:

  1. A Lack of Support

According to one source, 29% of UK employees have cited a lack of support as the lead cause of their stress at work. Employees simply aren’t given enough guidance, feedback or resources to do their jobs well. They struggle with a lack of communication with their managers and insufficient training, meaning some aren’t able to achieve their objectives, while others are not even clear on what these objectives are. Employees generally want to do a good job, and lacking the means to do so is likely to cause anxiety and frustration.

  1. Unclear Goals and Objectives

Unclear goals can cause frustration and confusion for employees who simply want to get on with their jobs. A lack of clarity in this area keeps employees from progressing and being productive. It can also get in the way of the employee feeling any sense of achievement or accomplishment. High performers who thrive on results will feel unable to cope and will feel rudderless in such an environment.

  1. Unreasonable Workloads

When employees begin to feel like Sisyphus, eternally rolling boulders up a mountain only for them to roll back down, it’s only natural that stress levels will rise. No matter how dedicated, skilled or passionate an employee is, they are only human. When they are continually overloaded with tasks and responsibilities, they will begin to feel that their job is impossible to do well — it is at this point that the strain catches up with them, and burnout is inevitable.

  1. Inadequately-Trained Managers

The importance of the employee-manager relationship really can’t be overstated. Managers account for 70% variance in employee engagement levels. When an employee feels supported and appreciated by their manager, they thrive. When they feel sidelined or forgotten, performance plummets. A study by Metlife found 69% of employees believed their manager’s behaviour had a direct impact on their stress levels — a finding supported by CIPD, which showed a direct link between poor managers and bad mental health. 

  1. The Physical Environment

Don’t forget how much our environments can impact our mental health and stress levels — issues such as poor lighting, uncomfortable seating or constant noise can add up and create an underlying source of stress.

  1. A Lack of Flexibility

One study showed 43% of its respondents said they experienced symptoms of stress, anxiety and burnout due to poor work-life balance. Maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life allows us to prioritise and look after our mental and physical health. When our lives become all about work, well-being inevitably suffers.

  1. A Lack of Autonomy 

When employees have low levels of autonomy at work, they also have less control over stressors at work. Self-determination theory states that people have a real need for autonomy. When this autonomy is threatened, creativity and well-being suffer — conversely, when we are given more autonomy, we generally see employees finding increased levels of job satisfaction and motivation.

  1. A Fast-Paced, Deadline-Driven Environment

When there is no let-up and there is constant pressure to meet tight deadlines, employees might find they are constantly contending with increased stress levels and high blood pressure, which is no good for anyone in the long run.

Signs and Symptoms of Workplace Stress

Knowing the causes of stress at work is one thing — but how can you tell if someone is struggling? The reality is, there are signs of stress that might go unseen at work. For example, it’s unlikely you would have any idea how many hours of sleep your employees get, whether they are drinking more than usual or whether they’ve lost interest in hobbies that once gave them a lot of joy. But there are some behaviours and indicators that will present themselves at work. 

Such signs and symptoms of workplace stress include:

  • Irritability, anger and mood swings
  • Overt pessimism
  • Making an increasing number of mistakes
  • An inability to focus
  • Lapses in memory
  • Diminished creativity
  • A drop in work performance
  • An overreaction to problems
  • Social isolation
  • Continually arriving late to work
  • An increase in absenteeism
  • Being overly critical of others
  • Looking tired and worn out

One of the most obvious signs of workplace stress is when an employee opens up and tells you that they are unable to cope — if this is the case, appropriate action should be taken immediately. Employees should feel empowered to ask for help and receive support.

Create a Culture of Support and Wellness

To prevent stress from running rampant within our organisations we need to be proactive. We need to incorporate wellness into our company cultures and employee experience and prioritise it, knowing that the payoff is happier, more engaged and more productive employees. 

To create a more supportive, healthy environment and reduce levels of stress within your business, you can consider:

  1. Promoting Mental Health as a Company Value — Be clear about how much mental health means to your organisation. Let your employees know you value their well-being and you don’t want them to compromise their well-being. Build it into your culture and employees will feel the psychological safety to open up about their issues.
  2. Incorporating Regular One-on-Ones — This frequent contact allows for open, honest communication about pressures and strains, while providing an opportunity to deliver feedback and recognition for hard work.
  3. Encouraging Open Communication — Employees should be encouraged and permitted to voice concerns and suggestions. Show your employees they are being listened to and act on their feedback when appropriate. Employees will feel far less stressed when they feel they have a say or some influence over their work environment.
  4. Managing Workloads — Ensure employees have workloads that are reasonable, and make sure they have the resources and training they need to do their jobs well.
  5. Promoting Work-Life Balance — Allowing for flexible work hours, hybrid or remote working and respecting time off can contribute to a more positive work environment. Management needs to lead by example here. If employees see management eating lunch at their desks or working all hours, they will follow suit and stress levels will inevitably rise.
  6. Recognising Symptoms of Stress — Managers need appropriate training in order to detect signs of stress early, so they can respond appropriately and quickly.
  7. Encouraging Social Interaction — Our social bonds at work are important. We need to connect with one another and build relationships. Companies should provide avenues for employees to be social and develop trust.
  8. Providing Opportunities for Training and Development — Opportunities for growth, advancement and learning can greatly improve job satisfaction and reduce stress levels in the long run.
  9. Providing Gym Memberships — Some companies, understanding the impact of physical exercise on mental health, offer subsidised gym memberships for their employees. 
  10. Providing Access to Therapy — Many modern businesses are providing free counselling to their employees as a way of helping them deal with stress. In fact, this is becoming a prized benefit for high performers looking for their next role.

Reducing workplace stress isn’t an easy endeavour, but companies that get it right benefit in a major way with reduced turnover and improved performance. Making small steps and introducing change slowly will show your employees you are dedicated to them, their well-being and their future at your company.

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