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A new study of stress at work gives organisations solid evidence to improve and develop their wellbeing policies.

Stress is the focus of this year’s mental health awareness week and, to coincide with the campaign, the Mental Health Foundation has published what’s believed to be the most comprehensive stress survey ever conducted, with nearly 5,000 people responding. The report, Stress: are we coping?, provides an unambiguous picture of the scale of the problem. Over the past year, almost three quarters (74%) of respondents reported they had experienced stress levels so high they were left feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.

The gravity of the situation is reinforced by the finding that, of those who felt overwhelmed, 32% had suicidal feelings or thoughts. These results are a timely reminder that the pace and complexity of modern life is taking a heavy toll on our psychological wellbeing. The report draws attention to the breadth of factors that can cause us to feel stressed. These range from financial difficulties and work pressures to health problems, loneliness and major life events such as bereavements. Whilst the number of risk factors identified is large, none are especially new. But the report does give us insights, for the first time, into the extent to which some of these stress factors affect different demographics within the UK population.

Stresses by life stage

If you’re a young person, housing problems like paying the rent, or not being able to afford to buy a house, are the biggest source of stress; unsurprising, given that house prices have soared over the past 10 years and  we have a well-publicised housing shortage. For older people (those over 55) long-term health conditions represent the most significant source of stress. Interestingly overall, women and men identify similar factors, but prioritise them differently. Women find personal finances the most problematic, whilst for men it is work pressures.

The granularity of the data in the report will allow businesses to be more effective in supporting staff to manage their stress levels. Knowing more about the impact of stress on different demographics within the workforce makes it possible to carry out targeted promotions around the company’s support resources and wellbeing initiatives; ensuring they reach those within the organisation to whom they will be of greatest relevance.

It isn’t just individuals that suffer when workers are under too much pressure. The negative impact of high stress levels on performance and productivity and on sickness absence is proven, so it’s in everyone’s interest for employers to take steps to ameliorate the problem. So what should businesses be doing?

Develop a wellbeing strategy

A comprehensive wellbeing strategy will pull together all of the internal support available within the organisation around mental health and wellbeing. For the strategy to be effective, it’s vital it has buy-in from business leaders. It will also require regular and active promotion to ensure all staff are aware of what is available and how to access it.

Use internal communications

Internal communications can be a great way of conducting campaigns around mental health and other wellbeing initiatives. They can highlight the various ways employees can build their resilience, enabling them to withstand the pressures they face. Wellbeing microsites can house information on positive wellbeing practices that can reduce stress – like healthy eating, regular exercise, high-quality sleep or on meditation practices. They can also be used to draw attention to more preventative initiatives that help mitigate stress such as flexible working or financial wellbeing programmes.

Offer resilience training

Many organisations now offer training to staff to help build their resilience. This helps them to withstand any stressful situations they face, benefiting them in both their work and personal lives.

Manager mental health training

More organisations are training their line managers in how to recognise the signs of stress and support employees who are struggling. It’s important that the training has a practical focus and isn’t just about awareness raising. It should result in line managers being confident in handling conversations around employees’ mental health and able to direct them towards the right kind of support – whether within or outside the organisation.  Such training will also help line managers better understand their own psychological triggers, and find the best ways of managing the resulting stress.

Counselling and other support

Even in the healthiest organisations there are times when employees struggle with unmanageable stress. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and occupational health services, if available, can provide invaluable support. Many of the issues most stressful to people originate outside work – things like personal relationship breakdowns, elder-care issues or debt. EAPs usually provide excellent support on these issues, but staff can only use them if they know they’re there, which is why promoting them continuously is so important.