Stress Management at work: It’s complicated

Work can be good for psychological well-being but ‘poor’ psychosocial working conditions (things like excessive workloads, constant change, or unsupportive management) have well-established links to work-related stress and the development of distressing mental and physical health problems.  Estimates suggest that around one-third of workers experience chronic work stress and a recent evaluation of the government’s ‘Fit Note’ shows mild-to-moderate mental health problems were the leading cause of long-term sickness absence.  The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence calculate that employers who take a proactive approach to dealing with this, based on prevention and early identification of problems, could save approximately £250,000 per 1,000 employees, each year.

However, employers may be attracted to off-the-peg solutions such as ‘resilience’ training or employee assistance programmes, that attempt to or improve ‘coping’ ability or deal with the symptoms.  Now, these could be beneficial, but unless organisations are also dealing with the sources of work-related stress, research suggests that – on their own – such solutions are likely to be ineffective in the long-term.  Yet, despite the logic of ‘prevention is better than cure’, research evidence for preventative approaches to work-related stress is surprisingly inconsistent.  Why?  Having spent the last few years researching this very topic, I have to say that it’s far from simple.

The main sources of ‘stress’ in each workplace will depend on the people, the jobs, and organisation, among many other things, so any preventative intervention must be tailored to the needs of each setting.  Before taking action, employers need to understand what is most problematic for their employees; the Health and Safety Executive recommend starting the process with a stress-risk assessment to help identify and target the most relevant risks.  Because solutions should be tailored, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, it can be difficult to compare the evidence for different kinds of preventative stress-management approaches.  However, based on research evidence and the findings from my own large-scale research study in a public sector organisation, there are some useful general lessons that any employer should keep in mind before starting out.

  • Communication: Ensure employees know what you are planning and why. Set realistic expectations, because disappointment can lead to cynicism; on a related note…
  • Coordination and follow-up: make sure there is someone with a clear responsibility for ongoing monitoring of progress of agreed project actions. There are few things likely to deflate enthusiasm and momentum more than unfulfilled promises.
  • Questionnaires: these can be a quick and easy way of getting an overview of potential issues and tracking progress, but tick-box surveys are simply not enough on their own. At the very least, they should also allow employees to provide comments, but this is still fairly limited. The Health and Safety Executive also recommend the use of focus groups to ensure staff have an opportunity to have some real input into the process.  This can help employers get a fuller understanding of what the real issues are, but it also has a further crucial benefit…
  • Employee involvement: prioritise identifying ways of involving staff in the selection and development of possible solutions. A consistent finding from the research is that employees should have involvement in the process; having a say, and crucially, having their views acknowledged and – where appropriate – acted on, are all associated with more successful outcomes.  Staff need to feel that any employee consultation or participation is meaningful; where input is invited, ensure these are followed-up and fed-back in a timely fashion, even (or especially) when it is not possible to implement them.

This is just a snapshot of a complex process and these lessons don’t guarantee success, but paying attention to them can certainly give you a much better chance.

John Hudson

Lecturer in Human Resource Management & Organisational Behaviour

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