Stress and the Workplace: What Causes Stress & How to Manage It

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If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you’ve experienced stress in the workplace. Stress is a normal human response to any situation, but too much stress can lead to serious health consequences and affect productivity levels.

This guide aims to educate leaders, managers, and supervisors about what causes work stress and the steps you can take to alleviate and manage it.

What is stress?

It is hard to find an exact definition of stress, but you will probably know what it feels like due to the symptoms it can cause.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.

According to Mind, the Mental Health Charity, when someone says they are feeling stressed they are most often feeling the effects of:

  • Circumstances or events that are placing pressure on them – for example, situations where they have too much to do and not enough time, too much to think about, or are feeling like they don’t have control over what is happening to them
  • The reaction they have when placed under pressure – for example, the feelings they experience when situations or events feel beyond their ability to cope

How big is the problem of workplace stress?

Covid isn’t the only pandemic in town, the problem of stress is a global workplace problem that affects the productivity of businesses and the health of their employees.

The CIPD’s annual ‘health and well-being at work survey 2020’ reports that:

  • 37% of respondents said that stress-related absence had increased in the last year
  • 60% of respondents said heavy workload is the top cause of stress
  • 41% of respondents said management style is the second highest cause of stress
  • 60% report an increase in common mental health conditions among employees

Many organisations are uncertain how they can tackle these issues, with only a third (32%) taking steps to discourage these unhealthy practices.

The HSE’s 2020 annual statistics on ‘Work-related stress, anxiety or depression in Great Britain‘ reports that:

  • Over 11 million days are lost at work a year because of stress at work.
  • 17.9 million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20 (Labour Force Survey (LFS))
  • On average, 21.6 days of work lost by those suffering from stress, depression or anxiety

Clearly, stress is a sizable problem for organisations.

The causes of stress at work are varied but normalised as a part of many working environments. At first glance, there are some obvious factors such as:

  • deadlines
  • time pressures
  • tight budgets
  • unreasonable expectations from bosses or colleagues

All things that are part and parcel of businesses across the world.

In 1979, a US sociologist, Robert Karasek, explored stress and stress factors in the workplace. His work and that of others has identified the following workplace stressors.

  • Job and Workplace demands – this might show up as someone being unable to cope with the demands of their work. This often happens as a result of long working hours, work overload and pressure
  • Control – this might show up when a person is unable to control the way they do their work. This may come from having a Manager that is highly autocratic and who micromanages the person. Control can also include a person’s lack of participation in decision making around things that affect them
  • Support – this often comes from a person receiving a lack of management, peer, and social support. Poor management style can also have a big impact on levels of stress
  • Relationships – brought about when a person’s relationships at work (and sometimes at home) are having a negative impact. This might be a result of bullying, personality clashes, or something else relating to relationships
  • Job Role – this stressor shows up when people don’t fully understand their role and responsibilities. This is often referred to as role ambiguity
  • Change – are not engaged when a business is undergoing change, so feel as though things are being done to them and not with them

How can stress affect performance in work and business results?

#1. Ignoring work-related stress can be hugely detrimental to an employer.

Stress results in higher levels of workplace disputes, accidents, errors, absenteeism and staff turnover. Its stands to reason that an employer that courts high-stress levels will see an impact on their business results. Here are just some of the business outcomes of high-stress levels in the workplace:

#2. Stress and its wider impact

Stress is contagious, the negative effects of stress extend far beyond the person feeling stressed themselves: a person’s stress and its symptoms can affect all those around them, including their colleagues, customers and family.

One person’s stress, left unchecked, can pass like wildfire through an organisation, exacerbating the negative effects an employer will feel.

Because of this, work stress and poor mental health can have a major impact on individual and team performance, and not just in terms of the work itself. They are both linked to absenteeism and staff turnover, confirmed by CIPD’s latest absence survey, which reports that stress is the number one cause of long-term absence.

#3. Stress and absenteeism

Employees that are chronically stressed are more likely to take time off from work, causing them to be absent for long periods of time. Unfortunately, many organisations look upon work absence as an employee problem and fail to uncover the root causes.

Failing to deal with stress as a root cause of absenteeism can have the following effects on business:

  • Increased pressure on colleagues, increasing the likelihood of them becoming stressed and experiencing self-doubt. This creates a contagious scenario where stress spreads and creates a widespread productivity decline
  • Negative impact on the morale of those perceived as ‘reliable’ staff, who have to absorb the duties of their absent colleagues
  • Negative impact on customer satisfaction due to detrimental impact on quality, project delays or frustration at being unable to contact their normal contact

#4. Stress and staff turnover

Stressed employees are more likely to leave their jobs due to resulting unhappiness, dissatisfaction and ill-health. The business impact of this increased employee turnover and a failure to address the underlying issues are numerous. They include:

  • Increased recruitment costs in having to replace and retrain new employees
  • Decreased productivity due to people leaving and the time taken for new recruits to reach the required performance levels
  • Increased legal costs and damaged reputation resulting from legal disputes
  • The cost of lost knowledge and expertise sometimes referred to as institutional knowledge

#5. Communication and harmony

Highly stressed people tend not to communicate effectively, which can cause high levels of disharmony and lack of cohesion in the workplace.

The result of this is often disastrous, causing poor internal and external customer service, a higher frequency of workplace disputes and a whole range of productivity-related issues.

All of these things, and more, have a serious impact on business results. With that in mind, it is vital that you take hold of the problem, learning to recognise stress is one of the first steps.

How do you recognise stress, within yourself and team members?

Without a doubt, the foundation of managing stress in the workplace is prevention and taking steps to minimise stress. However, it is impossible to avoid stress altogether, so managers need to be equipped to spot signs of stress and to provide appropriate levels of support.

The best way to spot stress in a person is by understanding their baseline behaviours and habits. The first signs that a person is suffering from stress can be seen through changes in their behaviour, and as a result changes in their performance. You should take care to avoid assumptions, but look for the following signs:

  • Changes in a person’s behaviours and moods – observe how they are interacting with their colleagues and customers; has something changed compared to normal?
  • Looking tired and lacking interest or enthusiasm for work that normally engages them
  • Anxious behaviours, including a negative outlook and seeing the worst in situations
  • Changes in work standards and attention to details of the job
  • Changes in a person’s appetite, drinking more alcohol, smoking more or starting to smoke
  • Changes in a person’s sickness and/or absence levels and/or punctuality

According to WebMD, symptoms of stress can fall into the following categories:

#1. Emotional stress symptoms:

  • feeling tense or anxious
  • being irritable, angry or moody
  • having trouble relaxing, sleeping and/or having nightmares
  • low self-esteem

#2. Physical stress symptoms:

  • headaches
  • lacking in energy
  • muscle tension or pain
  • stomach aches
  • frequent illnesses like colds

#3. Cognitive symptoms

  • having difficulty remembering things
  • high levels of anxiety and worrying
  • increased pessimism, thinking the worst
  • difficulty making decisions and concentrating
  • brain fog

#4. Behavioural symptoms

  • being restless, pacing
  • avoiding certain types of people or social situations
  • doing too much at once and not taking breaks
  • increased procrastination and work avoidance
  • social withdrawal

These changes in a person’s baseline can impact their work performance on a day-to-day basis, so it is recommended that employers create cultures and environments where team members can openly talk about how they’re feeling, especially when these signs become apparent.

Employers have a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees. To do this, an employer must conduct risk assessments for work-related stress and take necessary action to prevent staff from experiencing a stress-related illness because of their work.

For more information on how you can conduct a risk assessment for your organisation, go to the HSE guidance on stress or go direct to HSE’s risk assessment template.

If an assessment identifies areas for improvement, an employer should work with its employees to develop practical and realistic approaches to improving those areas.

Legal implications aside, there is a bulletproof business case for reducing work-related stress. The impact of reducing causes of stress and managing it effectively are many.

The result of targeted strategies can be a decrease in the costs associated with stress-related illness and an increase in productivity. They can make work more enjoyable for staff, which in turn makes it easier to recruit and retain talent.

Here are some strategies that organisations can use to reduce and manage stress:

#1. Stress awareness and self-care training for employees

When employees have a good understanding of stress and self-care they will become better able to manage stress and its effects.

Employees should be trained on how to recognise the signs of stress and what steps to take when they identify them. This will allow them to take action early before more serious health complications arise from prolonged periods of stress at work.

Employees should be encouraged to adopt a healthy approach to diet, relaxation and sleep – these self-care actions can reduce stress levels. A quick google search on ‘self-care for stress’ will provide loads of ideas, but here’s one self-care article I found earlier.

#2. Develop leaders and managers to manage stress effectively

A good leader and manager should be able to recognise when their employees might be feeling stressed. Stress awareness training can help them to better understand the signs and to provide appropriate support, a key step in creating an organisation that supports its people.

Leaders and managers need to take notice of their people, getting to know what motivates them and how they behave on a normal basis. By better understanding your employees you will spot any deviations from their baseline behaviours.

You should be on the lookout for things they don’t normally do (or do as much) like being absent from work more frequently, being more irritable than usual, being overly negative etc.

As a manager, being able to spot stress is just the first step; it is vital that you learn how to provide confident stress support; you need to know the level of support you should provide before signposting to professional support services, such as HR, counselling and psychotherapy. You can only impact the things under your control, do not become a ‘pop-up counsellor’!

A key skill for stress management is the ability to engage in difficult conversations and to listen empathically. By really understanding the root cause of the stress someone is feeling, you will be better equipped to consider changes that you can affect and better able to provide targeted support.

Once stress is identified and initial actions are taken managers should regularly check in on whether the person experiencing stress is feeling better. This could be through one-to-one meetings or informal chats with them.

Management support should continue even after the employee resumes their normal work patterns and determines that their stress levels are now controlled. The manager should continue to observe their stress levels and wellbeing and offer support as needed.

#3. Create policies and systems that prevent and reduce stress and support those who experience it

Senior leaders must lead by example, modelling openness with their own direct reports and signalling their ongoing commitment to supporting their employees by developing policies that directly tackle the problem of stress.

Company policies should focus on stress prevention, reduction and support. Systems and processes should be implemented in line with your policies to keep stress high on every manager’s agenda. If you get it right you should see these signs:

  • regular stress risk assessments with clear direction on improvements and control measures
  • every employee will know where to go and who to speak to when they experience stress
  • people will openly discuss their health and wellbeing, taking steps to prevent escalation and long term stress
  • management meeting agendas will cover employee wellbeing, looking for ways to continuously improve
  • employees will have access to occupational health and other support mechanisms
  • managers will spot signs of stress and take immediate action by having supportive conversations and identifying appropriate ways in which they can help and signpost to professional support

What training courses are available for stress management?

There are a plethora of leadership development and health and safety courses designed to support organisations, and their managers and employees, with managing stress in the workplace.

TSW Training offers the following courses:

  • Stress awareness
  • Stress awareness for managers
  • Mental Health First Aid

If you’d like to know more, get in touch today.

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