These are, it seems, increasingly stressful times. According to a 2014 report by the chief medical officer for England (their most recent report), the number of sick days lost to stress, depression and anxiety in the country increased by a whopping 24% between 2009 and 2013.
If that’s giving you palpitations, the bad news is things haven’t been getting better. The latest estimates from the Health and Safety Executive show that 440,000 workers in 2014/15 suffered from stress caused or made worse by their current or past work, while each person who was suffering from work-related stress took an estimated 23 days off that year on average, costing the economy billions of pounds.
Stress can come from anywhere, but common causes are unrealistic demands and time pressure, and a sense of powerlessness over your own circumstances – all of which is only likely to get worse given ongoing economic cuts, the rise of temporary contracts and the relentless march of technology, not to mention the potential fallout of Brexit, which even our political leaders seem unable to predict.
Add in the glow of the smartphone screen, making it ever harder to escape from work, and ever easier to get consumed by events you can’t control, and you can see why, for many, the balloon can easily burst. ‘The phone buzzes all the time, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night,’ says Dil Sidhu, chief external officer at Alliance Manchester Business School. ‘It’s almost like the brain has to be buzzing all the time. People don’t recognise that doing nothing is actually helping your brain put things in context.’
Stress can have a huge impact on people’s health and performance. It affects behaviour, physical health, decision-making, self-worth and personal relationships. An estimated 9.9 million working days in 2014/15 were lost in total due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
If your employees are at risk of suffering stress or mental health issues, then you need to do something about it. You’ll not only be helping people, but you’ll also create a more positive environment for your workforce – everyone will be happier, more productive and in a position to bring fresh ideas to the organisation. Here’s what you can do:
1. Be understanding
There are plenty of ways to offer support to those suffering stress. Yorkshire Water runs two-day courses to train employees as mental health first-aiders; law firm Hogan Lovells offers an in-house councillor who offers appointments directly, without having to involve HR or line managers; PwC recently appointed a mental health leader; and EY has introduced an informal buddy system for people to share their experiences of mental health issues with those who’ve been there themselves.
2. Change habits
A culture of presenteeism doesn’t give people the necessary time to recharge. ‘You get to the stage where people have two jackets,’ says Sidhu. ‘So if they leave one on the chair at work it looks like they’re still there.’ It doesn’t have to be like that: just 2% of Danish employees and 1% of Swedish employees work very long hours, compared to the OECD average of 13%. And it’s not just about being physically in the office. Amazon hit the headlines in 2015 for allegedly sending staff work emails after midnight and following them up with text messages asking them why they hadn't answered. Just thinking about that is stressful.
3. Listen to your employees
Make sure you’re doing things for them, not to them. When Lloyd’s of London banned daytime drinking this year, it may have seemed like a sensible way to boost health. But its employees suddenly found themselves having to go against a centuries-old tradition, and turn down pints in important lunch meetings or risk being dismissed. What became a source of stress could have been avoided if the company had asked employees before implementing it.
4. Empower line managers to make a difference
If someone’s immediate boss is putting in 12-hour days, what message does that send out to others in the team who are ambitious but may also wish to go to yoga after work to sort out their bad back? That line manager could instead demonstrate that the business won’t fall apart if you leave early on Fridays to actually see your kids.
5. Encourage better sleeping
Sleep helps us consolidate information, deal with the events of the day, and recharge our batteries. But it’s a cycle: lack of sleep causes stress; and the more stressed you are, the more you may struggle to sleep. People need their seven to nine hours at night, while napping can reduce anxiety and depression by minimising levels of cortisone, a hormone that elevates your blood sugar. Uber, Google and even PwC are among the companies to have installed nap pods for employees, with the latter also introducing in-house programmes to teach staff good sleep practices, acknowledging that it’s not only good for staff, it also provides a commercial edge by boosting their performance.
It’s also worth noting the compelling business case for dealing with stress. Since Yorkshire Water improved stress training for management and introduced pre-emptive individual and team stress risk assessments, a counsellor trained in cognitive behavioural therapy and a consultant psychiatrist to handle more complex mental health problems, together with revamping how it handles musculoskeletal problems, the company has saved a whopping £800k in sick pay and cover over two years.
For more tips on reducing stress and improving mental wellbeing, visit the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health