The workplace is high up on the list of stressful environments. As such, protecting the mental health of employees has become a priority for businesses of all sizes.
While many bosses might find it difficult to remember their school biology classes, there’s a lot to be learnt from the scientific principle of fight or flight when it comes to dealing with stress at work.
Fight or flight is the body’s natural response when presented with a threat - the blood is flooded with hormones which prepare the mind and body to act. It puts us under stress.
The word has gained a bad reputation but, in small doses, stress can actually boost motivation, productivity and performance at work.
However, if our bodies remain in a state of fight or flight for too long, chronic stress can occur, leading to or exacerbating conditions like depression, obesity, insomnia and autoimmune disease.
According to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 74 per cent of adults felt stressed "to the point they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope". This is when stress becomes chronic and a burden to both employees and employers, resulting in absenteeism, low morale and a decline in workplace performance.
What is considered "stressful" will vary from person to person. As an employer this makes monitoring and protecting employees’ mental health complicated. So, what are the practical steps employers can take to reduce instances of chronic stress?
One in four of us will experience a mental health problem, but employers need to take a "four in four approach" to emotional wellbeing: this is an issue for everyone, because everyone has a mental state to protect and enhance.
While awareness around emotional wellbeing is growing, many employees still don’t understand the difference between short-lived and chronic stress. Or, they’ve grown so used to being stressed they consider it normal.
As education evolves, more employees will be empowered to recognise the signs they’re suffering from chronic stress and seek help without dismissing their feelings and symptoms as "just part of the job".
Emotional literacy training can help staff recognise signs of chronic stress in themselves and others, increasing the chance of them getting support.
Workplace burnout has recently been classified by WHO as a recognised medical condition, so it’s important to promote switching-off.
That can be difficult in today’s seemingly always-on world, but employers have a responsibility to change the culture, whether it be out-of-hours email bans, fully handing over projects during annual leave or removing notifications from company devices.
Many employees don’t discuss their mental health at work because they fear discrimination or simply don’t know how. Instead of the responsibility falling on employees to talk, it’s time employers learn to listen.
Mental health champions can help break down barriers to disclosure and encourage an open dialogue. These can be employees with previous experience of mental ill-health or those specially trained to discuss sensitive or confidential matters with staff (most likely HR or line managers).
However, it’s an employer’s responsibility to listen, not diagnose or treat. So, if an employee chooses to disclose their mental health status, it’s important to encourage them to seek the opinion of an expert, be it a GP, cognitive behavioural therapist, counsellor or psychiatrist, whether it’s provided via the workplace or not.
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have an obligation to make reasonable adjustments if an employee has experienced a long-term mental health issue like chronic stress.
From flexible start and finish times, to quiet or private workspaces and extended leave, reasonable adjustments can help alleviate stress and allow employees to achieve their full potential at work.
Brendan Street is professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health and an NMC registered mental health nurse.
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