How can we tackle work-related stress?

National Stress Awareness Month is a good opportunity for organisations and people professionals to stand back and think about what action could make the most difference to reducing people’s stress at work.

The increasing prevalence of work-related stress has been widely recognised for some time. According to statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), work-related stress accounted for 57% of days lost to ill health. Our own research at the CIPD shows nearly two-fifths (37%) of respondents report that stress-related absence has increased over the past year and just 8% that it has decreased.

Stress is among the top three causes of short- and long-term absence and is the primary cause of long-term absence in over a fifth of organisations, according to our survey findings. The main causes of stress at work have changed very little over the last few years. Workload remains by far the most common cause followed by management style and non-work factors like relationships and family issues.

Taking action
On a positive note, the majority of organisations taking part in the CIPD research are making some efforts to manage stress and mental health issues; there is definitely more recognition about the importance of mental well-being and employers do more to raise awareness of these issues. However, nearly three in ten of those organisations that include stress among their top three causes of absence are not taking any steps to reduce it.

Organisations that attempt to identify and reduce stress do so using a range of methods. Flexible working options/improved work–life balance, employee assistance programmes, staff surveys and/or focus groups to identify causes, and risk assessments/stress audits remain among the most common methods used, followed by training for line managers to manage stress.

Carry out a stress risk assessment
The HSE says that ‘employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it’, and it has developed a range of practical tools and resources to support employers (see Stress Risk Assessment).

A recent addition to its portfolio is the Talking Toolkit. This guidance is designed to help managers start a conversation with their employees in identifying stressors (risks) and to help manage and prevent work-related stress. It is a simple, practical approach that enables employers, particularly SMEs, to begin the process of identifying and managing risks. This guidance is based upon the HSE’s Management Standards (MS), a well-established approach to help organisations to identify and manage six areas of work design (demands, control, support, relationships, role and change) that, ‘if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates’ (see What are the Management Standards?).

Take an organisation-wide approach
It’s clear we have some way to go before the majority of workplaces achieve parity of esteem in the attention that good mental health receives compared with physical health, and the confidence and openness with which this aspect of health is treated. Organisations that have a standalone well-being strategy and senior leaders with well-being on their agenda are most likely to be taking steps to identify and reduce stress. This shows how important it is to have leadership commitment to tackling work-related stress, as well as a framework that integrates support and awareness for good mental health across the organisation.

Organisations have a responsibility to manage stress and mental health at work, making sure employees are aware of the services and support available to them and how to access them. It’s also crucial that employers promote an open and inclusive culture so that employees feel confident about discussing any stress and/or mental health issues they may be experiencing so that they can seek the support they need.

Another useful resource is Mental Health at Work, an online gateway to resources, training and information that aims to change the way we approach workplace mental health. It’s funded by The Royal Foundation with Heads Together and developed by Mind and 11 key programme partners from the world of business and mental health, including the CIPD.

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