The employee stress effect
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What happens when employee stress gets out of control?

There’s an analogy that’s been making the rounds on social media. A psychologist is teaching stress management to a room full of people. She raises a glass of water and asks, ‘How heavy is this?’ The group calls out answers ranging from eight to 20 ounces (this is an American analogy, after all). The psychologist considers these answers for a few moments, then says, ‘The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It really depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralysed. The weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it the heavier it becomes.’

Just like the water in the glass, stress is a natural part of life. A bit of stress can be a positive thing; it can help to focus the mind and drive performance. The problem arises, however, when people experience an overwhelming amount of stress that paralyses them emotionally, clouds their judgement and drains their resources.

How stress manifests at work

Unfortunately, this is the kind of stress affecting one in five of the UK’s working population. Leaving aside employers duty of care to their workers, employees with high levels of stress often perform poorly and display greater levels of both absenteeism and, conversely, presenteeism. In fact, stress is the single biggest cause of sickness in the UK and is directly responsible for 25% of absences, costing UK employers up to £1.24 billion.

The kind of overwhelming, paralysing stress these employees are suffering can have a number of causes. A recent Bank Workers Charity study of nearly 7,000 bank employees identified the three workplace pressures most troubling to them: lack of control, lack of time and lack of influence. Other factors that may be causing undue stress include job insecurity, being promoted beyond ability, bullying and lack of clarity in their role. Employers and managers need to recognise that responsibility for many of these situations may lie with them and they need to put steps in place to help employees manage their stress by putting down the metaphorical glass.

Four ways to help employees manage workplace stress

  1. You know your employees aren’t clones, so don’t treat them like they are
    While your employees should conform to certain standards and levels of professionalism within your organisation, they each have their motivations and aspirations. Empathise with them, respect their individuality and they’ll feel more valued.
  1. Encourage feedback, even if it’s negative
    Establish regular meetings to address the good and the bad, and don’t take negative feedback personally. Holding regular one-to-ones will also help you stay attuned to how your employees are feeling, allowing you to step in before things get out of hand.
  1. Help where help is needed
    While getting snowed under happens to the best of us, if your employees aren’t managing their time effectively they could be falling far behind on productivity. Encourage them to plan and prioritise and give them guidance where necessary; their perceived lack of time could simply be the result of a mismanaged diary.
  1. Redistribute work if necessary
    If your employee is struggling from genuine overwork, re-distribute some of their workload across the team. It’s important that you have an honest conversation with them before this happens so they feel reassured that you don’t view them as unfit for their role.

Employee stress as business investment

What the analogy with the glass nicely demonstrates is the contextual nature of the impact of stress. Deal with employee stress when it first manifests and it needn’t be a big issue; ignore it until it reaches critical levels and you’ll have trouble on your hands.

The study on bank employees found that employees in the bottom 25% of reported levels of wellbeing were on average 30% less productive than their co-workers in the top 25%. So it makes sense that the International Stress Management Association, the organisation behind this year’s National Stress Awareness Day, sees employee mental wellbeing through a lens of business investment. If you’re not already looking at it from this perspective, you really should be.