21st March, 2022.
Supporting employees with stress in the workplace
As an internal communicator you have a lot of strings to your bow. One of those includes supporting employees with stress in the workplace. In this blog we explore the different steps that can be taken to educate and support employees.
Stress in the workplace: the current picture
Data from the Health and Safety Executive shows an enormous increase in stress, depression and anxiety in recent years.
A second study found that 79% of workers have experienced burnout with 35% reporting high or extreme levels.
The increases we have witnessed in recent years is a clear indication that we need to better support and education our employees.
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Stress in the workplace: the challenges
Whilst stress can directly impact our mental health, it isn’t a recognised illness in its own right. That’s because some stress is good for us. Mild stress gives us determination and helps us get tasks completed. But it is this non-defined, sliding scale of stress that creates a number of challenges:
1) There are so many causes of stress. This chart from CIPR shows the most common causes of stress for the UK population:
While just two of these relate specifically to the workplace, all of the stress factors could influence behaviour and performance at work. When there are so many contributing factors, it can be difficult to identify what is causing our own stress and even harder again for line managers to pick up on.
2) We don’t always recognise when stress levels are starting to become unmanageable. When we all experience stress and there are so many contributing factors, it can be hard to recognise when our stress levels have become excessive. As a result, stress can go unmanaged for greater lengths of time and often lead to illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
3) Stress alone is often not perceived to be a big enough problem. The stigma of mental health is still prevalent particularly when talking about stress. One of the causes of this is the generalist way in which we use the term “stress”. For example, if we are experiencing ongoing financial problems, we would describe that as “stressful”. But we would also use the same word to describe a period of momentary stress such as doing a speech.
The two are very different. One could have a negative affect while the other could be beneficial. As a result, if someone is reaching their ‘tipping point’, using the term “stressed” to describe how they feel may be overlooked. It may even prevent them from speaking up in the first place.
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What we can all do to reduce stress in the workplace
We all have a role to play in educating and supporting each other in the workplace.
What employers can do to support employees with stress in the workplace
Ultimately as an employer you need to create a safe culture. One in which employees feel comfortable starting a conversation about how stress is impacting them. The more this can be focused on prevention and early intervention the better. Here are some suggestions of how you can achieve that:
- Stress audits – it is your legal duty to protect employees from stress at work. By carrying out a risk assessment you can identify the areas you need to improve. The HSE has a useful template to help you do this.
- A formal wellbeing strategy – in 2021 only 50% of UK organisations had a formal strategy or plan in place. With a strategy specifically aimed at the mental wellbeing of your employees it will emphasise the importance you place on their mental health and help guide your team when supporting employees.
- Ensure line mangers understand their role – it’s important for your line managers to know that they do not need to diagnose stress or come up with a treatment plan. Their role is to recognise the signs, provide a safe environment for discussion and to navigate individuals towards sources of help. Training could be beneficial to help your line managers better support their team.
- Mental Health First Aiders – with trained Mental Health First Aiders present you give your employees an additional route for support. Employees often feel more comfortable speaking to someone who doesn’t work directly in their team. Their training also provides reassurance that they will listen and understand.
- Be aware of the impact of change – any change can cause stress so be aware of how any organisational changes could be impacting your employees. Offer them additional support if needed and keep in touch more regularly.
- Create a community – this year’s Stress Awareness Month revolves around the theme of community following evidence of how impactful loneliness can be to our mental health. For all of the above points to be successful your employees need to feel like they are part of a community. One that is supportive and encouraging. Good internal communications are central to this.
- An employee engagement app can help you share useful information but also give your employees a voice – all of which is vital to achieve a community feel. For example, you could share useful information about stress, run employee surveys to establish work-life balance and launch a new exercise scheme, all within the same platform.
What line managers can do to support employees with stress in the workplace
Line managers play a massive part in supporting employees’ stress levels. But they are also a big cause of stress – the HSE reported that the main factors cited to be causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety are workload pressure and a lack of managerial support.
We need to better equip our line managers so they can become a support rather than a cause. Here are some suggestions to help line managers reduce employee stress:
- Know the signs of stress – stress is multi-faceted. Line managers need to look beyond working life and recognise the signs of stress. This factsheet provides a helpful list.
- Be able to start a conversation – broaching a conversation with an employee about their stress levels could help prevent the stress from becoming unmanageable. This Talking Toolkit provides useful guidance and questions to help do just that.
- Know where to signpost people – if line managers identify that an employee needs additional support they need to know what to do next. Having a list of the options will ensure the employee gets the support they need – whether that’s through a Mental Health First Aider, member of HR, external counselling service or a support charity.
- Draw upon their compassion – showing compassion is absolutely critical for employees to feel confident enough to speak up. While some managers may naturally have compassion, others may need to work harder to develop those skills. The CIPD have some useful quizzes to help managers understand how their managerial style supports the wellbeing of their employees. This one looks specifically at behaviours and this one explores the barriers that may be holding managers back from supporting their team.
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What internal communicators can do to support employees with stress in the workplace
As an internal communicator you have the gift of reach. You can communicate with a large proportion of your workforce in a way that few others in your organisation can. Your communications should span everything from prevention to support, from policies to individual stories. Here are our top tips to help reduce employee stress:
- Talk about what your organisation is doing – if a new policy has been put in place or managerial stress awareness training is taking place – let your employees know. The more visible these initiatives are the more aware you employees will be of the importance your organisation places on mental health.
- Ensure employees know where they can turn – as an organisation you will have multiple support mechanisms for employees experiencing extreme stress. Ensure you promote these regularly to make it as easy as possible for your employees to seek help. This will include internal support such as line managers, mental health first aiders and links to wellbeing benefits, but it is also useful to include links to external support networks such as the following:
- NHS urgent mental health helpline – for periods of crisis
- NHS guidance on stress – including useful contacts and guidance
- Side by Side – an online community where you can listen, share and be heard (delivered by MIND)
- Rethink Mental Illness – providing practical help on a wide range of topics including living with mental illness, medication, The Mental Health Act and carers rights.
- Raise awareness of stress – our greatest weapon against stress is awareness. Help employees understand the causes, symptoms and coping mechanisms for stress. Rethink Mental Illness has a useful guide which highlights the signs and causes of stress, together with some guidance on managing stress levels.
- Share stories – if you have any advocates who would be willing to share their story that could really help others. It can be very daunting to speak out. Seeing someone else’s story can give that little boost needed to take that first step.
What you can do to support your own stress levels
Whilst we are busy supporting others with their stress levels, we can sometimes forget about ourselves. Take a moment to complete this stress test to find out where your stress levels are. At the end you’ll also receive recommendations for things you can do to reduce your own stress.
Using technology to manage stress in the workplace
Technology makes a significant difference to the awareness and support of employees. VRAMP is an internal communication tool that helps organisations better connect with their employees. Looking specifically at stress awareness and support, this is what VRAMP can do:
- You can reach all your employees no matter where or when they work – you can easily share messages via the employee app, desktop or email.
- You can give your employees a voice through comments and employee surveys – helping to pick up on signs of stress.
- You can target specific groups of people through employee segmentation – for example, if a team is undergoing significant change, you can keep in touch just with them to ensure they are OK.
- Detailed analytics provide valuable insight including engagement behaviours. VRAMP shows you who is and isn’t engaging. Should engagement levels suddenly drop, you have early indicators that can be explored before they become impactful.
Find out more about how VRAMP can help you manage workplace stress by seeing a demo.
With over 15 years’ experience in communications I have seen first-hand the difference strong internal communications can make. I am passionate about helping organisations reap the rewards of an engaged workforce and feel privileged to work for an organisation that has this same passion. We can achieve so much more when we work together towards the same goals.