We’ve all experienced some form of stress over the last 12 months be that work or personally related, so as Stress Awareness Month draws to an end we thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Charlotte Geesin, from Howarths who specialise in providing HR, Employment Law and Health and Safety advice, over Zoom to discuss work-related stress and how businesses can identify stress in a workplace.
In addition, we discussed what the main causes of stress in a workplace are, what businesses can do to reduce stress in the workplace and how they can become even more proactive and supportive, as well as the stigmas still attached to stress, anxiety and all other forms of mental health, the employees’ rights for taking time off for work-related stress and the resources that both the employer and the employee can utilise.
What is work-related stress?
This is a really good opening question. When we talk about ‘work-related stress’ we often also use and think of phrases such as ‘mental health’ and ‘well-being’. Whilst this is what tends to happen in practice, ‘work-related stress’ is actually something very specific.
Work-related stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as the adverse reaction to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them at work.
Mental health problems, including those which have a clear diagnosis such as depression, bipolar and schizophrenia can all be exacerbated by work-related stress. Work-related stress though, because it is a reaction to a work-related pressure should be something in itself that can be eased or, resolved completely by changes to an employee’s working practices and environment being made.
In terms of general ‘poor mental health’, this is when someone is struggling with low mood, stress or anxiety. This might be how someone is feeling when they are coping with feeling restless, confused, short-tempered, upset or preoccupied. We all go through periods of experiencing poor mental health: mental health is ultimately a spectrum of moods and experiences and we all have times when we’re feeling better or worse.
Where is mental health protected in law?
Sometimes people who have mental health problems are treated unfavourably because of their mental health condition. This is called discrimination and, if someone experiences it, they may have a legal right to challenge it. The relevant legislation which gives rise to this right is the Equality Act 2010 (EqA).
To get protection under the EqA, people usually have to show that their mental health problem is a disability. ‘Disability’ has a special meaning under the Act and a person needs to satisfy each element of the definition to successful meet with the legal categorisation of a ‘disabled person’.
Employers also have duties under health and safety legislation to assess the risk of stress-related poor mental health arising from work activities and to take measures to control that risk. The Health and Safety Executive has some Management Standards which are designed to facilitate this.
Because poor mental health is likely to be a ‘hidden’ disability, and many people are reluctant to disclose a condition, it is good practice for an employer to make adjustments for someone experiencing poor mental health even if they do not necessarily consider they have a disability under the EqA. The EqA’s definition of a disability refers to ‘long term’, meaning 12 months or more. Because many mental health conditions are fluctuating, the law doesn’t adequately protect some people who may still need appropriate support and adjustments at work.
Why does good mental health matter to a business?
Most people at some point will be affected in some way by poor mental health, either personally or through family and friends and perhaps more people than ever are struggling at this particular moment in time due to the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic. There is little doubt then that mental health is automatically an issue in some guise, for every organisation in the UK.
Stress and other mental health problems are the biggest cause of absence from work in the UK. The CIPD found that poor mental health is now the number one cause of long term sickness absence (4 weeks or longer), with work-related stress being the third top cause. The estimated cost of absence per employee ranges from £1,119 to £1,481 per year in the private sector. The cost to a business of poor mental health is not just related to absence though. Some employees with poor mental health will still come into work when they are unwell, which can undermine performance and create an unhealthy working environment. The annual cost to employers of ‘presenteeism’ and dealing with in-work performance-related issues is estimated to be even higher than in the cases of absence.
Poor mental health can affect all aspects of an employer’s business if not managed properly and things like staff turnover; conflict at work; poor client and customer relationships and the employer brand can all be negatively affected.
Embracing the benefits of good mental health then, and managing and supporting employees experiencing poor mental health in the workplace is therefore very important. Positively managing mental health will help to strengthen a businesses’ core and can help it to reap rewards in terms of staff morale, productivity and loyalty.
What are the standard procedures that every business should have in place for stress and other mental health-related conditions?
Ultimately, good communication and people management skills go a long way to preventing stress and poor mental health among employees and in all honesty, a common-sense approach will always go a long way.
In terms of ‘standard procedures’ though, employers should look to have a good induction programme in place for staff to ensure that the first few days and weeks are not unsettling in any way and are geared towards building confidence in new recruits- both in terms of their roles and their new colleagues. An effective induction may include; one to one meetings with the employee’s line manager; a physical office orientation (or a period of working in the office before embarking upon full time or, main time home working); providing details of any health and well-being initiatives provided by the employer and a clear outline of job role and expectations. This latter point is key when it comes to work-related stress: employees need to be clear about what they are expected to do and how their role fits in within the team.
Following induction, a scheduled series of 121 meetings with employees during the course of their employment or, a signposted way in which any concerns they may have can be brought to the attention of management should be considered. As I have said, mental health problems and work-related stress issues can fluctuate and people can feel very different from one month to the next. The best way to manage stress and mental health-related problems then is to be continually aware of how employees are feeling. Get to know your staff and notice when they seem to be acting differently.
If stress or mental health problems become so serious that absence from work becomes necessary then employers should ensure that they have robust ill-health capability and equal opportunities procedures in place to formally manage the absence in line with legal requirements, including those in respect of reasonable workplace adjustments.
What are the main causes of stress in a workplace and how can employers help minimise these?
Everyone is different and everyone will respond to and display signs of stress in different ways. Some common causes of workplace stress include:
-Working long hours and not taking breaks
-Unrealistic expectations or deadlines
-Unmanageable workloads or lack of control overwork
-An unsupportive workplace culture or lack of management support
-Poor change management
-Lone working (particularly relevant with the uprise of homeworking!)
The current pandemic is also presenting issues when employees are on long term furlough. Again, job insecurity concerns and things like a lack of purpose can have a devastating effect on a person’s mental health, particularly when nothing is within the employee’s control. At the moment, many are still subject to the Government’s ‘roadmap’ for exiting lockdown restrictions which can be a little precarious and which are dependent on so much.
Just as people’s experiences of stress differ, as will the relative successes of employer intervention. What might work for one employee, might not work for another. The very best things an employer can do in the initial stages to minimise these common causes of stress are to;
- a) Recognise they exist as common causes of stress and,
- b) Be mindful where employees might be subject to these in their work.
Where an employer can identify situations where stress might become an issue, they should broach the subject with an employee and raise the subject from the outset.
In our industry, we are constantly working to tight deadlines, which is out of our control and may cause strain on our employees what would you suggest to us?
Here, where a working environment is influenced by third party input I would say that the best thing an employer can do is to encourage people to take about their mental health and to speak up when the strain is getting too much.
In cases of poor mental health and workplace stress, early conversations about an employee’s needs which can be used to identify appropriate support or adjustments are crucial I would say. As such, the opposite approach also has merit: ask your employees if they are ok and if they are coping. I honestly believe that in simply asking someone if they are ok, you can have a massive impact on a person’s wellbeing. They may not choose to open up and everything might be fine at that point in time, but knowing that there is someone who is there for them should they choose to can make a big difference to someone who is experiencing difficulties. Managers need to ensure that they are seen as approachable and listen when staff ask for help. Workplace culture is also important: make sure it is conducive to encouraging people to talk about their mental health.
If you implement a 1-2-1 or appraisal process you could build in specific questions about work pressures and certain projects. There is nothing to shy away from in this respect: if you know an employee’s work could be causing some pressure to remember you are obliged under H&S law to assess the risk of harm to mental health and take steps to address it. This approach could form part of that risk assessment obligation.
Whilst mental health is a sensitive and personal issue like any health problem, most people prefer honest conversation. Shying away from an issue can cause resentment and perpetuate fears of stigma and increase feelings of anxiety. Always encourage conversation!
What are the warning signs that someone might be tackling stress or anxiety either at work or in their personal lives, and what is the best way to help and support them?
People can show signs of stress in three ways: physically, psychologically and behaviourally Physical signs of stress can include: fatigues, headaches, weight changes, visible tension, shaking, nervous speech, throat pain and sweating. Psychological signs include; anxiety of distress, tearfulness, mood changes, indecision, loss of humour, increased sensitivity, distraction, confusion, memory lapses and in the worst of cases, suicidal thoughts. In terms of behaviour, you might see an increase in smoking or drinking, drug use, withdrawal, a resigned attitude, restlessness, lateness, working longer hours, repetitive speech, uncharacteristic errors and increased sickness absence.
I have said it already, but conversation and talking issues through is the best way to start helping employees who are suffering. Starting the ball rolling with a conversation will be the only way for an employer to start putting meaningful steps in place to help an employee, such help obviously looking different from one employee to the next.
Some people may not want to take time off work for stress-related strains as they may feel that there may be consequences from their employer, what are the employees’ rights to time off for stress and any other mental health-related issues?
Employees who are incapacitated through health whether as a result of mental or physical health condition are entitled to time off through sickness and payment for this provided that they meet with their employer’s requirements in terms of validating the absence. Where applicable both SSP and company sick pay can be paid and employees who are absent with mental health issues should not be treated differently due to the nature of their illness.
As previously mentioned, in some cases employees with mental health conditions will be classed as disabled under the EqA which protects employees against unlawful and less favourable treatment on grounds of their health.
When is it the reasonability of the employer to speak with a team member that may be stressed at work and what is the best way to approach someone who may be dealing with stress?
In terms of when it is reasonable to speak to an employee: there are no rules on this. It all depends on the particular facts of a case and why the employer considers there might be an issue with a particular individual. My view is that it always better to ask someone if they are ok: they can always say that there are or, choose not to engage with you, but you will have broached any issue and hopefully made the employee aware that support is there if desired.
Depending on the facts of a case, the best way to broach the initial conversation is probably informally in a catch-up session or, at a 121 meeting if there is one coming up.
Are there any outsourced platforms or programs that employees and employers can utilise to help?
Yes, there are lots. The charity Mind has some great resources for both employers and employees alike and they are a very good place to start. A quick Google will turn up plenty of results I am sure!
Although times have changed and employers are getting better at mental wellbeing for employees there is still a stigma attached to all mental health and stress-related conditions. With that being said some people may not feel comfortable approaching their employer for fear of inadequacy or risk of job loss, what would your advice be to those who are keeping silent?
This is just my opinion but I do think that there is a stigma attached to mental health conditions in the workplace and I think each section of the workforce experiences different worries when thinking about raising any issues with their employees. For example, a woman returning from maternity leave might be nervous about being considered as not being properly committed to her role, a man who opens up to his employer might be considered to be ‘less of a man’. Fears about effects on promotion, job stability etc. will be present in many I think who are worried about opening up to their employer.
In terms of those people who were perhaps ‘keeping silent’ for fear of these repercussions, I don’t think that there is a specific piece of advice I could give because each case would be completely different. Going back to the previous answer though: there are lots of organisations out there that exist to provide this type of support and I would probably encourage people to look into this if they were feeling in need of help.
In your opinion how do you think that employers can become more proactive and supportive?
I think that this is primarily done by acknowledging that mental health and workplace stress are issues that naturally present themselves within a workplace. Once this is acknowledged and normalised, employers can then start tailoring a support provision that suits their business and business needs. I think having some mechanism, whether in 121s or otherwise for the subject to be broached is important. I also think: adequately responding to any employee disclosures is crucial; encourage people to talk- create a safe place to do this; encourage honesty and where a problem is identified, work on an action plan which could help to resolve the issues. Get into the habit of reassuring employees if they come to you with concerns and let them know they will get any support they need.
One thing some employers do is work to a Wellness Action Plan (WAP). A WAP is a personalised practical tool that everyone can use to identify what keeps us well at work, what causes us to become unwell and the support we need/would like to boost our wellbeing. As an employer, encouraging your employees to draw up a WAP gives them ownership of the steps needed to help them stay well at work or manage a mental health problem. It also opens up a dialogue between you and your staff to help you better understand their needs and experiences and therefore better support overall wellbeing. This in turn can lead to greater productivity, better performance and increased job satisfaction.
What’re the employer’s responsibilities?
To assess the risk of stress-related poor mental health arising from work activities and to take measures (however those measures may look!) to control that risk, as per H&S legislation.
To prevent employees from being unlawfully discriminated against on grounds of any disability which they may have,
What’re the employee’s responsibilities?
Technically, there aren’t any! Arguably, you could say that an employee has a responsibility to tell their employer when they are struggling but there is not a specific obligation in this respect.
How can businesses facilitate in helping an employee gain assistance from external operators?
This is an operational matter and each business will differ, I am sure. Common approaches thought include paid counselling and paid occupational health support. In practice, anything could be really be considered, it just depends how far the employer wants to go!
If you could give one piece of advice to someone battling stress what would it be?
To someone. It doesn’t need to be your employer, or even to someone you know. Just talk and let it out.
Remember it now more than ever important to support and talk to one another, if you are finding that things are tough, then talk to someone whether that be a friend, a co-worker, a family member or someone from an organisation such as Mind or Shout.
Citizens Advice: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/
Shout: Text “Shout” to 85258, 24/7 support, https://giveusashout.org/
Howarths is an award-winning, family-run business providing specialist HR, Employment Law, business immigration and Health and Safety advice and support to other businesses.
We work with around 500 SME businesses ranging from a company employing 2 staff, to those that employ up to 350.
Charlotte qualified as a solicitor in 2011 and has specialised in providing Employment Law advice to the SME market ever since. In 2019, Charlotte also became qualified to practice immigration law and also supports businesses with their business immigration requirements.