Workplace stress is on the rise. And while some stress can motivate, too much can be debilitating - so what causes stress at work and how should employers deal with it?
How seriously do we take the concept of “stress”? On the surface, it is something everyone has experienced, an inescapable element of working life. But cases of workplace stress are on the rise, according to a recent report by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and they can have a serious impact on company performance.
In 2018-19, 602,000 people were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in 12.8 million lost working days - the equivalent of 21.2 days lost per case. Stress may seem unavoidable, but can organisations afford to lose over three weeks of work per employee? And, if not, what should they be doing to prevent cases of workplace stress reaching crisis levels?
As people are getting more stressed and more anxious, they don’t have the freedom to be open about it - especially to their managers or teammates. It’s a vicious cycle
What is workplace stress and is it really so bad?
Stress itself is not inherently bad - something which businesses embarking on wellness initiatives need to understand. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, business psychology professor at University College London and chief scientist at Manpower, explains. “In simple terms, stress is a signal about the taxing and threatening properties of our environment, and we are better off reacting to it than ignoring it”. Indeed stress is often what makes us good at our jobs - it can encourage focus, drive, and attention to detail.
Too much stress, however, is a recipe for disaster. The HSE’s definition makes this concept a little clearer, describing work-related stress as “a harmful reaction that people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.”
Rob Stephenson, mental health activist and founder of InsideOut, agrees. “Stress itself isn’t the problem, lack of recovery time is. We need stress to survive and perform, but overexposure to stress combined with under-recovery is what can lead to real problems.”
What are the main causes of stress at work?
Mr Stephenson believes the real causes of stress at work lie in the changing nature of work itself. “The fact we are more connected to our workplace by technology is a huge factor. Our working day has been extended and, if we’re not disciplined, it extends to the moment we wake up and check our notifications or our emails. That is having an impact on our brains.”
This lack of demarcation between work and home means that we are having less time to recover from the stress of working life, and less time to pursue those activities which keep us well, such as exercise or a good night’s sleep.
Many believe our time at work itself is also becoming more pressured. The HSE management standards cover six key areas of work which, if not properly managed, can be associated with poor health and decreased productivity. These include workload, conflict resolution and the avoidance of duplication of effort.
“Of HSE’s six causes of stress, the three I see most often are poorly-managed change, lack of control over work, and unreasonable demands” says Angela Armstrong, founder and owner of leadership development firm Armstrong. “These unreasonable demands are often combined with too few resources - so sometimes you have lots of resources but demand is too great, and sometimes your demand does not look that great, but you don’t have enough people to do it anyway - it’s about getting that balance right”.
How does stigma contribute to stress?
Not only are workplace pressures increasing, but stress can be compounded by an inability or an unwillingness to talk about it. As with many mental health issues, there still remains a considerable level of stigma around workplace stress, especially since it is an experience common to so many. Those who use stress as a motivator and do not suffer its ill-effects may have little sympathy or tolerance for those who find it debilitating.
Tackling the causes of stress at work, therefore, must be a question of company culture as much as it is one of policy. “There is still this perception that having mental health struggles is a sign of weakness or failure,” says Rich Pierson, chief executive and co-founder of the wellness app Headspace. “So, as people are getting more stressed and more anxious, they don’t have the freedom to be open about it - especially to their managers or teammates. It’s a vicious cycle.”
In simple terms, stress is a signal about the taxing and threatening properties of our environment, and we are better off reacting to it than ignoring it
Tips for dealing with stress at work
When it comes to dealing with stress at work, Headspace has employees pretty well covered. “We offer courses on finding focus, prioritisation, productivity, and managing anxiety for example, ” says Mr Pierson. “And for quick breaks, we’ve got meditations, eyes open exercises and guided walks on mindful tech, taking a break, hitting reset and more.”
But dealing with stress at work does not always demand defined processes, often it is a question of simply asking the right questions, says Ms Armstrong. “It’s about encouraging people to have adult conversations: ‘I understand you’re not feeling great at the moment, what do you need?’ They know themselves whether they need fewer hours or less demand or support prioritising, so ask them, it’s really that simple.”
Having regular check-ins - both formal and informal - is also important, she adds, as is pointing people in the direction of self-care practices when it comes to dealing with workplace stress. “Work will often focus on focus - decision-making, prioritising, demand, the nuts and bolts stuff - but if we take care of ourselves as a human being it will give us greater resourcefulness to deal with any stressful situations which come up.”
Encouraging employees to leave work on time, get enough sleep, and socialise with their peers may seem counterintuitive in environments where productivity and performance are king. However, these are the foundations upon which healthy employees are built, and the only way to create a sustainably successful workforce is to promote this holistic approach to dealing with workplace stress. The forward-thinking business leader may even consider the wellbeing of their employees as they shape future job roles.
As Mr. Stephenson asks, “are we currently creating roles which are conducive to psychological safety and good wellbeing? I think in a lot of cases we’re probably not.”