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Picture depicting stress in the workplaceJust a few short decades ago, stress was almost viewed as a badge of honour, worn with pride and representative of success. It seemed to be reserved solely for high-powered executives, executive leaders who worked tirelessly around the clock to ensure the smooth running of their organisations. Nowadays, stress is much more widely recognised as a part of everyday life for the majority of us. Whether this is due to the increase in external stressors or the fact that we talk a little more openly about stress these days, the fact remains the same – workplace stress is commonplace. But what exactly is stress? And how does it occur in the workplace?

The science of stress

Believe it or not, feeling stressed is not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, it is your body’s way of protecting you from danger. You know that phrase ‘fight or flight’? Well that’s exactly what is happening when you experience stress. Being faced with a potential danger causes your stress reaction to kick in. It creates an uncomfortable sensation as it is your body’s way of telling you to move out of harm’s way.

Too much stress, however, can be a bad thing. Given the rapid pace of development in the world today, new stressors are being added to our lives constantly. The internet means that we have instant access to news from all over the world, and unfortunately most headlines bring bad news. The constantly evolving technology means that blue light glare from device screens are messing up our sleep patterns. Increased traffic on the roads mean that we are surrounded by noise as we move from A to B. The recent and current coronavirus pandemic has also brought with it a lot of fear and anxiety. All of these external stressors provide a constant backdrop to modern life.

On top of such stressors, there is also personal stressors to consider. Having a new baby, getting married, moving to a new house, tending to a sick relative, suffering the loss of a loved one – all of these can be major sources of stress. There can be infinite causes of personal stress, all of which can be exacerbated by external stressors. Another huge factor in an individual’s overall mental wellbeing is workplace stress.

Workplace stress

The Irish Health and Safety Authority defines work-related stress as “stress caused or made worse by work”. This is an important definition, as according to our Labour Relations Commission in its Work-Related Stress Guide; “all manifestations of stress at work cannot be considered as work-related stress”. In other words, an employee may be stressed at work because of something having absolutely nothing to do with the workplace. It can be caused by any number of stressors present in one’s private life. This can easily translate over into the workplace, as it is next to impossible to simply switch it on and off when going to work.

Workplace stress then, in the context of this article, is stress that occurs purely because of work.  It is the type of stress that is significant from you the employer’s perspective – as you may be, in part, responsible for it.

How common is work-related stress?

Workplace stress can occur for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons are timeless, for example, understaffing. Others may be cyclical or seasonal. Others may be caused by temporary measures, for example an increase in demand on supermarket workers throughout the Covid-19 lockdown. According to the WHO, “the most stressful type of work is that which values excessive demands and pressures that are not matched to workers’ knowledge and abilities, where there is little opportunity to exercise any choice or control, and where there is little support from others.”

Obviously, some causes of stress are beyond the control of the employer. But not all. For example, an important deadline can cause stress from the amount of pressure and effort required to try and meet it.  If such an incident is rare or isolated, it is generally considered to be acceptable, and the stress will dissipate quickly after the deadline has been met. However, in some organisations this type of demand is a constant fixture. Such employers even cause this through their management or scheduling of workplace projects, as a means of extracting unfair amounts of effort. A lot of the time, the interval between these deadlines is shorter than the recovery time needed, which can have a negative effect on all parties.

The cost of workplace stress

Work-related stress has a human cost for the employee suffering it and it also brings with it a financial cost for the employer. Perhaps the most obvious cost is that an employee suffering from stress will be less productive.  They will obviously be entirely unproductive if they are absent.  But they will also be less productive even if they are physically present.  A 2014 report from Towers Watson states; “the research clearly shows the destructive link between high levels of stress and reduced productivity”.  In a recent, research-backed book – Performing Under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger & J.P. Pawliw-Fry, the authors state that: “People frequently perform far below their capability in pressure moments.”

If a stressed employee repeatedly loses out on recovery time, then pressures could mount, and they could easily quit.  This situation brings with it the financial cost of a recruitment effort, as well as many related costs, such as the lost productivity from the ex-employee no longer being available to carry out their responsibilities. There is also the cost of reduced productivity as the replacement hire goes through a learning curve. And, while the new employee is going through that learning curve, there is the productivity loss on the part of the colleagues/supervisors/managers who are coaching/directing the new employee as the new employee acclimatises themselves to the new environment and learns the ropes. Additionally, there is the potential increase in stress levels for the colleagues of the departing employee, as they have to contend with the reduction in staffing levels during the transition period

Keeping your valued employees and keeping them productive so as to avoid the aforementioned costs are legitimate endeavours. There are, however, other considerations. For example, imagine an employee suing you successfully for serious damage caused to their health through (alleged) workplace stress and its management (or lack thereof). Costs in such cases can be over €100,000 if the case goes to the High Court and is won. Or imagine if an employee doesn’t just quit – but also brings a claim for constructive dismissal. The potential cost? Substantial 5-figure sums are not uncommon. In such cases, the burden of proof is on the employee rather than on you the employer. But that does not lessen the financial impact such a case could potentially have on your organisation.

So, what can you do?

Firstly, you need to actively consider whether or not your workplace is a breeding ground for stress. Are you imposing unreasonable demands on employees? Have you been made aware that your employees are stressed as a result of their managers’ demands? If people are stressed, talk to them about it – informally at first. Ask them what the problem is. Consider whether you are part of the problem.  Avoid dismissing their concerns.  Avoid getting defensive. And above all else – listen. This may be common decency but it’s also in your own self-interest to do so. Without your employees, your business is sunk. And of course, you should also be cognisant of the need to avoid doing anything that provides ammunition for potential future litigation.

Do you have the proper procedures in place to handle grievance claims by stressed employees?  Every business, whatever its size, should have a Grievance Procedure and a Dignity at Work Procedure in place.  Your Grievance Procedure should require the employee to set out in writing the nature of their grievance, e.g., a concern over feeling stressed because of work.  The procedure should also require you to deal with the grievance fairly and consistently.  As said earlier, it is good to try and deal with grievances informally initially. But it is crucial for you to have formal processes in place in case the informal approach is insufficient.

Of course, simply having the procedures in place is not sufficient. In the event of a grievance, you need to be able to demonstrate that you actually followed the grievance procedure. For example, it is important that an employer notes any concern or complaint raised by an employer, however casual the manner in which it is raised.  There also needs to be a clear record maintained of concerns raised, actions taken and attempts to resolve complaints/concerns.  In the future, you may be relying on such clear and unambiguous records if you need to defend a constructive dismissal claim or personal injury claim!

Finally, have you the skill level within your organisation to adequately deal with grievances in an expert and timely manner?  Could the potential size or complexity of grievances strain your in-house capacity or expertise levels?  It may be prudent to consider having such matters properly investigated by an external expert in workplace investigations – otherwise, you run the risk of leaving your organisation exposed to litigation.

For some further information on this topic, check out health and safety software provider, CRAMS’ tips for reducing workplace stress. Helen Sanders’ article ‘Beyond Blue – How to Deal with Stress at Work?’  suggests a number of stress-relieving techniques for stressed employees. Health Grinder has also produced an interesting list of 123 science-based ways to reduce stress.

However, this is a complex area and it is important to seek early advice if you become aware of a potential problem, or if you simply want to reduce the risk of problems. To get expert guidance in the area of managing stress in the workplace call, Mary Cullen or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email mcullen@insighthr.ie.

 

 

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