Vanessa Oakes, Lecturer, Staffordshire Business school
Stress is no longer a mental health condition that organisations can afford to ignore. In 2018/2019 12.8 million working days were lost due to stress, depression and anxiety (HSE, 2019) at a cost to the economy of £34.9bn. This cost is related to temporarily replacing absent staff, the cost of disruption to the organisation and lost opportunity costs, the cost of paid sick leave and the time required to manage employees who are off work, with an average number of days lost per case at 25.8 (HSE, 2019).
These numbers make for sobering reading, particularly if you are a business owner or a manager who has seen sickness absence related to stress, increase in your team. However, there is more than just a financial cost to the organisation. Your organisation’s reputation as an employer diminishes with high rates of absence due to stress, the engagement levels of your staff drop and in response, so does productivity and all of this happens because you are sending the message to your staff that their mental health isn’t as important as the performance of the organisation.
When it comes to proactively managing stress in the workplace, there is a lot that can be done to reduce stress before sickness absence takes hold. The CIPD’s 2019 Health & Wellbeing at Work Survey reports that 61% of organisations are recognising this as a priority, at Board level. But what can you actually do to reduce stress for your workforce?
Determine if employees are suffering from work-related stress or stress in their personal lives.
If your employees are experiencing stress at home, this will also impact their productivity too, so help them to acknowledge it and provide as much support as you can. An EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) can help you to offer support to staff without having to pry into their personal lives and will show your employees that you are concerned about them.
If your employee is suffering from work-related stress, then there is a lot that can be done to improve their environment. Firstly, take a look at your expectations of them. Are they achievable and realistic? Do they have the support and authority needed to do their job? Are they under excess pressure to deliver? Can their responsibilities be shared by others or delegated?
Look at your absence management process – is it too harsh or too lenient? Can you build flexibility into your process to ensure you are able to support staff who are suffering with stress?
If too harsh, it may be forcing staff back to work before they are ready because there is a financial impact, or they may be afraid for their job security. These staff don’t get the time to deal with their stress before they are plunged back into it, and so may get worse over time. Are you conducting return to work interviews consistently for all staff? This is the best opportunity to determine if you employee is ready to be back at work.
Where your absence management process is too lenient, or you don’t have one, do you know why your staff are off sick? If you don’t know then you can’t help. Maybe your line managers don’t feel that they can ask such personal questions? If so, provide training to boost their confidence.
Focus on health and well-being
Communicate regularly with staff about the importance of their health and wellbeing and ask them about initiatives they think would improve health and wellbeing for all. It might be that water coolers within easy reach of desks will mean they are better hydrated; encouraging walks at lunchtime could improve the mental health in many different ways; having a space for staff to eat lunch, away from their desks means that their focus will be away from their work for at least a short time during the day. Most importantly though, ask them what they think and follow up on it! They will often have the best ideas about what would improve things for them.
Make sure that you react proactively when you suspect an employee is under stress, don’t wait for them to go off sick. This requires your managers to be more alert to possible changes in behaviour, timekeeping and work productivity and quality. Ensure that they receive training in how to start conversations about stress and mental health, and that they can signpost employees to other services if they are unable to help.
Finally, it may seem like managing stress and the related absence is time consuming, costly and unnecessary, but it has been proven to pay off. The CIPD’s survey found that three quarters of organisations who implemented proactive health and wellbeing strategies, however informal, saw a positive improvement in metrics such as morale and engagement, lower sickness absence, improved employer reputation, better retention of staff, a reduction in reported work-related stress, improved productivity and better customer service levels. Supporting your staff through difficult periods in their personal and working lives pays dividends when it comes to the success of your organisation. Now is not the time to delay!
Currently, it is even more important than ever to consider the health and wellbeing of staff as they endure lockdown and furlough leave. One thing which no organisation can offer, is certainty but there are ways of encouraging staff to maintain their health and wellbeing whether they are on furlough leave, working from home and trying to juggle childcare and other caring responsibilities. Here are a few tips:
- Communicate with them as regularly as you can – you may not be able to reassure them that their jobs are safe, or that things will return to normal quickly, but at least they will know that someone is still looking out for them.
- For staff on furlough leave, ensure that you have given them written details of their remuneration – try to avoid uncertainly building about how much they will be paid and when.
- Ensure that managers are in touch with their teams to ensure that each gets individual support – some employees might be coping well; others might be feeling higher levels of stress and may need more support.
- Remind your staff about their importance to your business, what their strengths are, how much they are valued and their latest achievements. They need to hear this now more than ever.
These steps should help you to maintain an engaged and productive (if they are homeworking) workforce during this challenging time and beyond.