When we’re stressed at work we can feel pretty alone, but the figures say that we have far more company than we think. While most of us are motivated by a certain amount of pressure, too much and we can quickly become overloaded.
And the results of this have a serious impact on productivity and performance, as well as on our quality of life and health — in some cases leading to conditions such as anxiety and depression.
The Health and Safety Executive defines work-related stress as, “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work” — social scientist Michael Marmot describes the stress response even more succinctly as “what happens when we can’t control what is happening to us”.
And the fact is that as a workforce we’re all getting more and more stressed at work.
Mental health is now one of the biggest HR issues faced by UK employers — with over 11 million days lost at work a year because of stress (i). Perkbox’s recent 2018 UK Workplace Stress Report (ii) studied 3,000 employees from around the UK to get some insight into the demographics that are most affected. It looked at different industries, regions and age groups — and found, overall, that 59 percent of those surveyed identified work as the most common cause of stress.
Yet many employees are still reluctant to talk about stress at work, due to a perceived stigma to admitting that they might be struggling or a business culture that is not properly supportive of the mental health concerns of its staff. However, stress can affect anyone at any level of an organisation and it’s never been more important to tackle the issue head-on
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May), hosted by the Mental Health Foundation is focusing on stress. And, in particular, whether we are coping with it — and how.
Researchers at the Yale Stress Center found that when stress becomes a “way of life” — a non-stop fire-fighting rush, a 24-7 hyper-connected digital pressure, ongoing endurance of a bullying boss or an overload of work or responsibility — parts of our brains can actually reduce in size (iii). The prefrontal cortex, which regulates our amygdala, blood pressure and heartbeat among other things, shrinks — having a big impact on our ability to concentrate, plan and make judgements.
In acute stress, we may be all too aware of our extreme responses, but in such chronic adaptive behaviour, we need to be clear that being under such pressure is not good for us — and how to recognise it.
Joan Kingsley, consultant clinical and organisational therapist, spent 25 years researching workplace psychology for her book, The Fear-free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture, and has isolated a number of clues, including feeling dread, fretting over things out of work hours, feeling panicky, being unable to focus, feeling like you can’t cope, having difficulty staying in the moment, feeling overwhelmed and having a racing heartbeat. Which Type of Stress are you Experiencing? is another useful resource to check in with yourself and your cortisol levels.
For managers, the signs that someone in their team may be suffering from stress include changes in the person's usual behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues, changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks, appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed, changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking alcohol and an increase in sickness absences and/or turning up late to work.
To attract and retain committed employees, supporting the mental health of staff needs to be a priority in any organisation and this Mental Health Awareness Week, the charity Mind is raising awareness — and focusing on helping employees and employers work to create a mentally healthy workplace where everyone feels valued and supported.
Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, said: “At Mind, we hear from many people struggling with work-related stress and poor mental health. The causes are many, complex and vary from person to person. However, there are some commonly cited factors, such as lone working, poor relationships with colleagues, excessive workloads, long hours, low pay and job insecurity."
It’s vital that employers — no matter how small — have good support in place for all staff, including those experiencing unmanageable stress or poor mental health.
"Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity for employers to create an environment where staff feel able to openly talk about stress and poor mental health at work, including any issues they’re facing — whether personal, professional or a combination.”
Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work, by doing a risk assessment (iv) and acting on it. And crucially, there is an awful lot that can be done easily and effectively to offset the pressures of employees.
“Creating mentally healthy workplaces doesn’t necessarily require making large or expensive changes. Offering things like regular catch-ups with managers, flexible working hours and the option to work from home, can all make a huge difference. Even those that do have a cost attached — such as subsidised gym membership and Employee Assistance Programmes (confidential 24-hour phone support) — are likely to save money in the long run through increased staff engagement and productivity.
“Mind is helping companies to make changes to support staff mental health through our Workplace Wellbeing Index, which is a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees.”
Mental Health Awareness Week runs from the 14-20 May 2018.