Workplace stress | What HR can do

Insidious in nature and often detrimental in effect, stress is arguably one of modern life’s greatest plagues. In fact, the World Health Organisation has even dubbed it “the health epidemic of the 21st century”. 

Despite this, stress often remains unacknowledged and untreated, bubbling and festering beneath the surface. Unsurprisingly, work is often a contributing factor, if not the main catalyst.

However, with Stress Awareness Month having recently coincided with the advent of the global pandemic’s second year, one would think that this issue is now firmly at the forefront of employers’ minds.

Given the upheaval of the past 12 months, there has scarcely been a more appropriate time for organisations and HR departments to formally address stress, setting into motion new processes and initiatives centred around individual wellbeing.

Benefits and initiatives

In modern society, the importance of mental health and overall wellness is in sharper focus than ever. Naturally, therefore, these things are now firmly on the radar of responsible employers and, as a result, wellbeing has become a mainstay in the HR vernacular.

This is often reflected in company-wide initiatives that encompass a variety of provisions and schemes to ensure employees remain healthy and stress-free. 

Whether through benefits such as free lunches or gym memberships, or resources and services such as counselling or mindfulness sessions, employers can take significant steps towards ensuring employees are healthy, happy or productive.

A wide body of evidence exists in support of this principle. According to one study on the state of mental health in the workplace, almost half (45%) of employees say that anxiety or depression is hurting their productivity in the office.

By extension, the impact this can have on organisational success is also tough to deny in this day and age. In fact, a recent study by Deloitte concluded that poor mental health costs businesses up to £45 billion each year. What’s more, it has become an increasingly expensive problem, with costs having risen 16% since 2016.

But with COVID-related stress contributing greatly to worsening mental health in 2021, certain wellbeing initiatives could be more effective now than ever. For instance, subsidised medical care may provide some employees with some desperately-needed piece of mind during this time, serving to improve their overall wellbeing and reduce stress levels. 

In short, by reviewing and bolstering the overall approach to wellbeing in 2021, employers may be stumbling on an all-encompassing solution to increasing stress levels and decreasing productivity. 

"On average, for every £1 spent on supporting their people’s mental health, employers get £5 back on their investment in reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover."

(Mental health and employers: refreshing the case for investment)

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Much like wellbeing, the importance of pragmatic leadership is now unbeknownst to few in the business world. 

As a result, the role of the manager is now arguably more complex and holistic than ever. Aside from the run-of-the-mill delegation and micro-management, compassion and soft skills are now considered to be staple attributes.

Nurturing and developing these characteristics in managers is essential to ensuring the continued wellbeing of employees. And once again, this is likely to trigger knock-on effects such as bolstered engagement and performance.

Naturally, communication plays a central role here. In order for employees to feel heard, supported and appreciated, managers must be encouraged to convey this at every possible turn. 

Whilst this approach should be maintained in all scenarios, 1-2-1 meetings are a particularly effective outlet for managers to display these skills. In this setting, the employee can be encouraged to speak freely about any worries or concerns they might have; managers can then respond by offering counsel, with the intended effect of alleviating stress or anxiety. In many cases, a simple, solutions-focused conversation can make all the difference.

What’s more, as if the global pandemic wasn’t a clear enough indicator, numerous studies have suggested that this approach to leadership is sorely needed in today’s working world. For instance, a survey by Mind UK titled ‘Taking care of your staff‘ found that 30% of employees don’t feel comfortable talking openly with their line manager about stress.

This is a sobering statistic, and one that should encourage organisations to continually review and refine their approach to leadership development. 

COVID safety

Finally, while the modern HR is very much a broad, all-encompassing function, none of its roles are more poignant in 2021 than creating a COVID-safe workplace.

The significance of this process is twofold. Not only must HR fulfil its defining purpose of safeguarding the employee, but in doing so, it can create an environment in which service and production can continue to function as normal.

Where employees are required to work on-site, businesses are encouraged to follow four key criteria, outlined by the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

  • Safe people
  • Safe workplaces 
  • Safe equipment
  • Safe systems

While these criteria centre around physical health, a crucial by-product is creating peace of mind for the employee. This is particularly important when you consider that, according to a recent Honeywell survey, a staggering majority of the global workforce (68%) does not feel completely safe in the workplace.

More generally, numerous studies have shown that stress and anxiety levels have seen stark upticks since the pandemic. Indeed, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, taking account of pre-pandemic trajectories, mental health has worsened substantially (by 8.1% on average) as a result of the pandemic, with young adults and women most impacted.

Needless to say, such high stress levels among workforces will no doubt pose a challenge to engagement and productivity, making the challenge of business continuity all the more difficult.

And while organisational success is at stake here, ensuring employees feel safe at work is your first line of defence against whistleblowing and other types of claims that are currently on the rise. At a time where economic stability is wavering, an Employment Tribunal would present an unwelcome additional obstacle that any employer or HR team would hope to avoid.

In this way, as well as numerous other well-documented benefits, a focus on mental health can indirectly protect your organisation against worst-case scenarios and the associated financial and reputational risk.

Maintain a healthy, happy workplace with specialist support

At Ellis Whittam, we help employers to build highly engaged teams and keep them safe through a combination of expert Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety support. 

Whether you want to better understand your obligations under health and safety law, need guidance on managing a difficult employee wellbeing issue, or would benefit from specialist advice around implementing new policies and developing your HR strategy, get in touch on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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