International Stress Awareness Week encouraged employers to recognise the signs of employee stress and the pivotal role they can play in overall employee wellbeing, says Dr Kylie Bennett.
Stress Awareness Week (30 October – 3 November) is dedicated to raising awareness about stress, its impact on mental and physical health, and the importance of stress management.
This year, the date celebrates its 25th anniversary, so it is a particularly interesting time to analyse whether we have made any progress over the past quarter of a decade, especially given the challenges society has faced over recent years.
For example, global prevalence of common mental health concerns rose by 25 percent during COVID-19 and has not reduced as pandemic measures eased (World Health Organisation, 2022).
While stress can be triggered at many moments in life, in the UK, stress is the most common work-related illness, something which has only worsened with the cost of living crisis. In fact, recent statistics by Champion Health show 76 percent of workers are currently experiencing moderate to high levels of stress and year-on-year that figure has increased by 13 percent since 2022.
In the workplace, there are a number of stressors which can affect employees and it is important for employers to acknowledge these. For example, an employee might feel under pressure if the demands of their job, such as hours or responsibilities, are greater than they can comfortably manage. Additionally, staffing changes can cause workplace stress, as employee turnover rates can lead to a disconnected team. It is worth noting that staffing changes can also cause employees to not have regular progress meetings or management check-ins to evaluate and ensure role progression is happening sustainably.
Other sources of work-related stress include conflict with co-workers or bosses, lack of resources, over or under supervision, and changes in duties. In addition, in recent years we have also seen technology heighten employee stress further as the UK workforce becomes increasingly attached to their devices and screens. In fact, 47 percent of employees in the UK cite tech issues at work as having a negative impact on mental health (Freshworks, 2022). A contributing factor to this is technostress – an inability to disconnect from work – often leading to more negative feelings.
Of course, a large part of people’s days are dedicated to work. Employees also often face multiple challenges in their personal lives too, including those related to financial stress, pregnancy, and juggling childcare and other caring responsibilities, which can amplify any work-related stress. The consequences of workplace stress are negative for both employees and employers. Not only can it lead to absenteeism and high employee turnover, but it also leads to poor time management, poor performance and lower productivity. Technological information overload can also result in workers being unable to manage priorities or their time, often resulting in panic or guilt and, in turn, mental health concerns. With mounting stressors, employers are increasingly expected to help employees to find more balance and improve wellbeing.
So how can employers help?
It is in employers’ interests to protect their employees from work-related stress for both moral and financial reasons. Firstly, the wellbeing of employees should be a priority for all organisations, to ensure that every employee has an opportunity to succeed without risking their mental health. Additionally, work-related stress is a huge cost for organisations, causing the loss of over 15 million days of work, and costing UK organisations over £5 billion annually (Champion Health, 2023). Presenteeism due to ill mental health is itself estimated to cost £15.1 billion in the UK per annum (Centre of Mental Health).
Therefore, it is incredibly important UK employers start to listen to the facts and encourage a workplace free of stigma about mental health challenges, which starts with recognising stressors. HR Directors and leadership teams need to acknowledge the correlation between excessive workloads and employee stress, and act accordingly. They also play an important role in promoting understanding of how to best support employees experiencing stress, and in supporting wellbeing. In fact, according to the McKinsey Health Institute, the UK economic value of improved employee wellbeing could be between £130-370 billion (Business in the Community, 2023).
A wellbeing programme
One step employers can take is offering a wellbeing programme which promotes stress reduction and provides clinically backed resources to support long-term behaviour change, as opposed to quick fixes. Resources which also make the connection between mental and physical health, and encourage activities which lead to increased physical health, such as step challenges or just generally moving more, could also have big benefits. In fact, Singh, Olds and Curtis et al., (2023) found that increased exercise, ideally around 150 minutes per week, can help dramatically reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and can be even more effective than medication or counselling (British Journal of Sports Medicine).
To go one step further, employers can ensure the programme provides tools in order to promote personal wellbeing in and outside the workplace, such as articles, videos, and habit trackers. There are a number of healthy habits – both physical and mental – which we can establish to support our mental health and wellness on a daily basis. Tracking and improving these habits through small measurable changes can have a drastic impact on employee day-to-day wellbeing. These can include eating healthily and exercising, practising mindfulness and fostering social connections.
Employers can also offer access to mental health treatment, as well as resources such as internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT) – self-guided training which has proven effectiveness for preventing and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and which is included in wellbeing programmes such as Dialogue’s. It is suitable for individuals who prefer to consult self-led resources and learn skills to manage and improve their mental health. It is also important that organisational policies provide flexibility and take into account personal challenges faced by employees, such as caring responsibilities.
Employers have a responsibility to provide support for employees, especially as employees increasingly expect this. Organisations need to equip employees with the tools necessary for implementing healthier habits and improving their overall wellbeing in order to promote and retain a happier and healthier (and more productive) workforce.
Dr Kylie Bennett, Mental Health Programme Director, Dialogue.