How to spot stress in your workforce and how to deal with it

More than 11 million days are lost at work a year in the UK because of stress, costing the economy over £5 billion. In fact, almost half of workplace absences due to ill health relate to poor mental health, stress or anxiety, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

But while the problem is across all industry sectors, smaller companies can be disproportionately affected.

12 per cent of employees working in firms with fewer than 50 employees suffer from stress on a constant basis, compared to 8 per cent in larger companies according to HR provider Moorepay.

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This can be down to the conditions in a smaller company, such as the blurring of boundaries regarding defined roles in a small team, or a greater engagement with the firm’s fortunes, but what is clear is that SMEs don’t always have the resources to support and alleviate employee stress.

For a company with hundreds of staff, losing a member of the team for a few days or more can be fairly easy to cover, but for SMEs, the impact of employee absence is far more noticeable, considering one person’s absence could lose ten per cent or more of the firm’s productivity.

Businesses with the smallest workforces are often hit the hardest as they often don’t have the additional resources to fill the gaps.

But it is not just lost days that are at stake. Presenteeism, where employees attend work when unwell and perform below par, also comes at a cost.

The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that over half the cost to business of mental ill health at work is as a result of reduced productivity of employees when at work.

Putting measures in place to keep staff feeling mentally and physically healthy is therefore a worthwhile investment.

But many SMEs struggle to support their staff and alleviate work pressures. Half of small businesses don’t provide mental health support to staff, compared to the national average of a third.

Colin Borland, director of devolved nations at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), says: “A key advantage (of working in) small firms, is that staff work more closely with decision-makers.

“Obviously it is in both the business owner and their employees’ interests to have a healthy and productive workplace.

“However, most small businesses do not have dedicated occupational health or HR departments and this can be tricky.”

He says of stress related absences: “We have heard from business owners who didn’t know where to turn when an issue occurred.”

FSB provides a range of support for members and recently published two guides to help small businesses – one looking at mental health and the other wellbeing, so the organisation can be a good place to start when looking for help.

In Scotland, the NHS’s Healthy Working Lives initiative has been developed in partnership with representatives of trade unions, small and large business, voluntary groups, the Health and Safety Executive and a range of medical professionals.

It provides a website with guides and tools to help with every aspect of health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace.

An advice line, plus free face-to-face and online training is available for employers of all sizes to develop their understanding, knowledge and skills.

According to Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare, there are a range of factors which can contribute to mental health issues at work, whatever the size of company.

He says; “These include a lack of flexible working conditions and a lack of boundaries when it comes to things like email etiquette. Receiving emails or being contacted out of hours can exacerbate the pressure people feel under.

“A competitive culture which can lead to employees not having proper breaks or feeling the pressure to be the first one in the office and the last one to leave is also a major factor in stress in the workplace.”

Employees across businesses of all sizes tend to agree on what would help combat stress at work, with flexible working, reducing working hours and offering access to counselling coming out as the top three initiatives.

But while small businesses are unlikely to be able to afford to set up an employee assistance line, there are steps which can be implemented to create an environment designed to alleviate stress.

A good place to start is building and sustaining a positive, supportive workplace culture where employees are encouraged to lead healthy, active lives and have a good work/life balance.

As an employer it can sometimes be hard to identify when an employee is under stress, but symptoms can be psychological, such as indecision, mood swings or lacking motivation. Physical symptoms such as a change in weight or appetite could be a sign that an employee may be suffering from mental health issues without realising it.

David Price, CEO and wellbeing expert at Health Assured says: “Employee wellness schemes, such as introducing office gym classes or providing fruit are a good way to help employees unwind and feel better about their well-being.”

He points out that employees’ relationships with each other are important, not just for their wellbeing but for the company’s success. “A better office atmosphere leads to higher levels of productivity, creativity and collaboration.

“Setting aside an hour now and again to bring your team together can be great for reducing employee stress, boosting morale and team building.”

“Open communication is a two way street and the more employers converse with employees, the more likely employees are to share concerns, ideas and thoughts making for much stronger working relationships and a healthier overall company culture.”

In terms of changing the physical environment, small businesses can make adjustments that are highly impactful on the wellbeing of their staff. Providing a quiet room or a chill out zone where employees can spend 15 minutes with their thoughts can dramatically help reduce workplace stress.

Price says: “Not many businesses can afford to build health food restaurants or indoor bike lanes; however there is always room for improvement, particularly when it could boost productivity and overall job satisfaction.

“Small changes such as a brighter office, more modern office furniture, plants in the office, new pictures, even small changes like new office cutlery and kitchenware will make the working environment conducive to work.”

Perhaps the greatest contribution an employer can make to their workers’ wellbeing is the introduction, where possible, of flexible and remote working.

Price says: “A major stress inducer is non-flexible working hours. Allowing employees to work remotely or flexibly is proven to be good for morale.

“Positives of this are that you are entrusting an employee to manage their own time and taking away added stress such as child care considerations from working parents.”

He believes that if flexible working is managed with open communication and clear expectations and parameters it can become a major influence on reducing employee stress.

Phil Barker, head of health and safety services at Moorepay which commissioned the research into comparative stress levels in small and large companies says: “There are many advantages to working in a small firm, but these businesses often lack the time and resources to devote to wellbeing and mental health initiatives.

“Businesses, whatever their size, have a duty of care to support their employees, and indeed the HSE have recently updated their guidance on first aid requiring businesses to consider mental health first aiders.

“Supporting staff with stress or other mental health issues doesn’t have to be expensive or involve a complete process overhaul. Effective initiatives are simple to introduce and within easy reach for many smaller organisations.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. A digital version can be found here.