Mental Health Awareness: Combatting stress in the workplace to increase employee engagement
12.5 million working days were lost in the UK last year due to workplace stress, depression or anxiety, and in the states, 40% of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful. Is your organization doing enough to support its employees?
For Mental Health Awareness Week (14 – 20th May), Mental Health Foundation is focusing on ‘Stress: are we coping?’. Stress affects every one of us in different ways, and its damaging effects can be especially prevalent in the workplace.
Combatting stress in the workplace
According to Attitudes in the American Workplace VII report 80% of US employees feel workplace stress, and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress. With this in mind, throughout this blog we will establish what exactly causes workplace stress as well as how your organization can spot its first signs to create a happier, supported and engaged workforce.
What causes workplace stress?
It’s clear that workers on both sides of the pond are struggling to cope with workplace stress. But what exactly is stress? The Health & Safety Executive defines it as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.
BBC Science, however, provides a more scientific description: “Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body. When your body detects stress, a small region in the base of the brain called the hypothalamus reacts by stimulating the body to produce hormones that include adrenaline and cortisol”.
It is these hormones that help a person deal with threats or pressure they are facing – known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Why is this important for employers?
So, how is this relevant to office life? The average person will spend 90,000 hours of their life at work, so it’s hugely important for employees to feel supported in the workplace. Happy, motivated employees work harder for an organization so creating a safe place for them is integral.
The ‘fight or flight’ reaction can be conjured up at any given moment. However, there are certain workplace triggers that can be more potent than others.
This is a common cause of workplace stress or anxiety. Many people enjoy their job, but the level of work that is expected of them feels insurmountable. We all know the feeling of returning from a two-week holiday to a mountain of emails, or perhaps there is a shortage of staff.
Unclear job expectations
According to a survey from Chicago-based ComPsych, when asked what is most stressful when experiencing change at work, 31 percent of the more than 2,000 survey respondents cited “unclear expectations from supervisors”.
Poor rewards for effort contributed
Employees who are poorly rewarded for their effort contributed can often lead to burnout and low job satisfaction which adds to workplace stress, according to research published on Eurofound.
How to spot the first signs of workplace stress
Everyone experiences workplace stress at one point or another. Meeting a tight deadline or dreading a certain meeting. However, when it begins to affect an employee’s life, health and wellbeing, it is important to tackle it as soon as possible. The first step in taking action is being able to spot the first signs of stress.
There are several behavioural changes to watch out for that could be caused by workplace stress.
- Changes in the person’s usual behaviour
Scientists recently discovered that chronic stress triggers an enzyme to attack a certain molecule in the brain and the result is decreased sociability. Keep an eye out for any changes in an employee’s normal behaviour, perhaps they’re a little more reserved or isolated; being observant could prevent an issue in the workplace escalating to something more serious.
- Changes in the standard of their work
If you’ve ever felt scatter-brained and about to cry during an extended stressful period, recent research by the Journal of Neuroscience could explain why. A study on rats found that chronic stress rewired parts of their brains so that they were more emotional and more forgetful.
Combatting stress in the workplace
- Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn
Chronic stress can lead to fatigue and even worse, insomnia. As well as straining your body physically, stress puts strain on your brain, too. When stressed, your brain is highly alert and trying to process all those thoughts and messages. All that activity is just as draining as physical exertion.
- Changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking or drinking
In a poll of 18-75-year-olds who have drunk alcohol in the last year, 58 percent admitted to ‘drinking to escape’, while 47 percent said they did so to cheer themselves up. 41 percent of those surveyed said drinking gave them relief when they felt depressed or anxious, while 38 percent of drinkers said forgetting their worries was one of the reasons they sometimes turned to booze.
Increase in sickness or absence
Employees who are dealing with their mental health may have an increase of absenteeism. A quarter of workplace absences in the UK are due to mental ill health, costing employers an estimated GBP 26 billion per year.
While spotting these tell-tale signs is by no means the cure to workplace stress, spotting them early and adapting the culture in an office, or sourcing the root of the issue early could go a long way to preventing your employees from feeling the heat.
Happiness: the key to business success
This brings us on to preventative measures that can be taken to reduce workplace stress, building a happier, supported workforce. In our eBook, Happiness: the key to business success, we discuss how a happier workforce is a more productive workforce.
Indeed, a study by the University of Warwick found that, “happy people are 12 percent more productive than those who are not”. This fact was further proved in Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report which stated that, “unhappy employees are estimated to cost the US between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity every year”.
On the contrary, happy employees reap huge benefits for businesses, including:
- Higher productivity – up to 2x
- Increased retention – up to 5x longer than unhappy staff
- Up to 6x more energy to their role
- 10x less sick leave
How to embed a positive culture
We now understand the theory behind creating a positive workplace culture – but how do we actually implement this knowledge? How can employers embed a positive culture?
Effective two-way communication
Opening up the channels for two-way communication builds a culture of trust and allows employees to express their thoughts – be it concerns or otherwise – in a safe and secure environment. We discuss this topic in more depth in our blog Employee feedback: 7 steps to creating a healthy culture for staff to air concerns.
The importance of work-life balance
Employers understand that their staff have a life outside work. What’s more, with 21% of Americans working between 50 and 59 hours per week, this increase in hours culminates in increased work-related stress, which is estimated to cost US companies upwards of $300 billion per year. Employees need the time to focus on their personal lives, so with a balance between work and life, it can help reduce stress-levels.
Show gratitude and appreciation
Stats show that 44% of workers believe they are always or often overlooked and according to AttaCoin, only 53% of employees report feeling appreciated at work. This lack of appreciation can lead to depression, feelings of being undervalued and lowered employee productivity. Something as simple as building a rewards and recognition program on your company intranet shows employees you truly value their contribution to the workplace.
Today’s world has evolved, it is no longer taboo to discuss mental health so it’s important for the workplace to progress with the changing times. Employers have a duty of care for staff wellbeing, by implementing some (or all!) of these pieces of advice in your workplace, you can take a step in the right direction towards breaking the silence surrounding mental health and creating a safe workplace where your staff are supported and engaged.
If you would like more information about mental health in the workplace, visit: https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/