Challenging stress in the workplace

It goes without saying that some degree of stress is part and parcel of leading a business; however it’s important not to recognise or accept high levels of stress at work as standard. Setting a good example to your employees in how you manage workplace stress is paramount to ensuring a positive and healthy organisation.

Simon Blake OBE, Chief Executive of IoD campaign contributor MHFA England explores the dynamic of challenging stress in the workplace in the following article.

“Now in its 27th year, Stress Awareness Month is an annual reminder to pause and reflect on what stress means to each of us, our teams and our businesses.

Stress is a natural response to events, but excessive, undue and persistent feelings of stress tend to highlight an imbalance in our lives.

This is why our social enterprise, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England emphasises the importance of all of taking time to ‘Address Your Stress’ – in 2018 we created a set of dedicated resources to raise awareness of the small things we can all do to rebalance its impact.

‘Coping strategies’ are important to consider over the whole year, not simply during Stress Awareness Month. But why is it that coping strategies have become so important for the working population? What does stress tell us about the places we work – and what needs to change?

Research published this month by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) lays bare the impact of stress in the workplace. It reveals that nearly two fifths of UK businesses have seen an increase in stress-related absence over the past year. A nationwide red flag for all of us.

It is true that a certain level of stress is a normal part of (working) life, but too much stress – stress that leads to sickness absence – should not be, and need not be.

If any teams in your business are working under constant stress the onus is on us, as senior managers, to be clear this is not an acceptable way to do business, and to work with our teams to find the best ways to address this within our business context.

In response to its survey findings, the CIPD has made it clear that bad management practices play an important part in exacerbating stress.

I am delighted that the CIPD has called for a focus on mental health training for managers in line with a preventative approach to workplace wellbeing: empowering every manager to create workplaces where people can thrive and to be able to offer support if someone is struggling with their mental health.

Training is of course important but it is only one part of a broad set of measures all organisations should strive to implement.

If we are serious about challenging bad habits and outdated ways of working that can underlie stressful workplaces, and creating a culture where everyone can achieve, we have to take a ‘whole organisation’ approach and ensure that wellbeing is woven in to our thinking in every policy and process.

This means looking at basic hygiene factors within the organisation, like healthy job design and fair and equal pay, and then supportive factors such as flexible working and reasonable adjustments. It also means empowering managers and peers closest to the day to day operations to design stress out of their system and respond creatively when symptoms arise.

It is a sign of progress that we are now talking about stress. And even though we are at the bottom of the mountain right now, there are some great resources to help employers better understand workplace stress, and build a mental health strategy that helps to tackle its root causes.

As leaders we must commit to creating the right culture and then take deliberative action to make it happen through strategy, training, making wellbeing a part of our business plans and, crucially, in setting the right example. We cannot say one thing and practise another.

Whilst a significant number of us would believe progress is being made, the findings are stark: two thirds of the respondents to the CIPD’s survey said their leaders fail to encourage a focus on mental wellbeing through their actions and behaviours.

As leaders we know our teams watch us and how we manage stress. We cannot neglect our own wellbeing. It is not good for us and it can have a damaging ripple effect across the business.

This is why taking active steps to manage our own wellbeing – and to understand how your behaviours are experienced and understood by your teams – is really important. Modelling positive behaviours and encouraging conversations about all aspects of mental health is part and parcel of leadership in a mentally healthy organisation.

So this Stress Awareness Month, I urge all of you to reflect on your organisational culture and approach. Reflect on your behaviours and encourage the leaders in your organisation to do the same. I encourage you to be honest. Think truthfully about stress in your workplace.

Reflection is of course the first step to action, so I urge you to identify at least one action that can turn the dial on how stress is addressed in your business.”

Find out more about the role of mental health training as part of a ‘whole organisation’ approach to workplace mental health in MHFA England’s best-practice guidance for employers.

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