Mind on the importance of recognising stress in the workplace

By Anthony Wolny | 12th September 2019 | 13 min read

Mental health awareness and wellbeing are now fundamental workplace considerations for business owners across the UK. With leading industry experts and the media alike placing a strong emphasis on the importance of a work/life balance and stress-free working life, it is easy to see why so many companies are investing in ambitious, long-term health and wellbeing strategies to benefit their employees.

However, implementing and managing such programmes are no mean feat – just how do busy HR professionals harness such concepts, and strive to really make a difference within their organisations?

We interviewed James Glover, Head of Human Resources and Organisational Development at Mind; the UK’s leading mental health charity; to find out more:

During your career, how do you think the focus on stress, mental health and wellbeing has changed?

There has definitely been a fundamental change in the way we approach stress, mental health and general employee wellbeing in recent years. When I first started out in the industry, there was very much still a prevailing culture of ‘stiff upper lip’ and coping with both physical and mental worries behind closed doors. There was very much an attitude of ‘suck it up and carry on,’ and mental health as an entire concept was very rarely discussed in the professional sphere. However, in the last five years in particular, mental health has really gained a public agenda in terms of awareness, which in turn means that staff feel able to discuss any issues.

What are the main signs of stress and how do you spot them?

Correctly spotting the signs of stress in employees can be difficult, and you should also remember that an individual’s reaction to a stressful situation or period of time is unique. However, you can very broadly apply a ‘scale’ of behaviour that can provide some indication of how someone is feeling – for example, an employee might become withdrawn, disengaged from their colleagues and role, or else become overly focused in their work. At the other end of the spectrum, an employee could become more hyperactive, outwardly gregarious and even slightly ‘manic’ in an attempt to mask their true feelings.

You may also suspect a stress issue if an employee suddenly become persistently absent from work, but this can be much harder to diagnose – it is easier to say you have a stomach bug or migraine as a reason for being sick, but much harder to admit to having a low day or struggling to cope.

I actually believe that the incidence of mental health issues may be much worse than is reported, as the are classified as other, more generic and palatable problems. We really need to work to remove the stigma around telling the truth about mental health, but sadly, it’s normal to worry about your professional sickness record. As we all now move roles more frequently, many are keen to keep their records as clear of absence as possible. It is still more acceptable to have multiple entries for colds or the flu, but less acceptable to log several incidents of poor mental health.

Why is it important to support employees with this, and what are the implications for businesses of not doing so?

People are every organisation’s greatest asset, and as employers, we have an ethical responsibility and duty of care to ensure that we do all we can to ensure our workforce’s remain happy and content. This should aid our overall health and productivity levels. People move roles and businesses much more frequently these days, so it is important that staff feel valued and cared for, as this should then increase employee engagement. This includes publicising what support systems are there for employees when they fall ill, and keeping clear channels of communication open.

The implications for businesses that do not follow these guidelines include an overall lack of productivity, low morale, and a high staff turnover.

Do you believe that not dealing with stress levels affects productivity?

A lot of our work as a business centers on staff engagement and productivity; for example, we worked with LGBT on a project around being yourself at work; and the vast majority of our research has shown that the more engaged employees are, the more of their ‘true’ selves they bring to work. This in turn then raises productivity levels, enhances engagement, and ultimately lowers the staff churn rate.

The same principle can also be applied to mental health – if we acknowledge that mental health is an issue for us all at some point in our lives, and that businesses have the ability to help and guide employees, then people will feel able to come forward and be open about their mental health in the workplace. By operating an ‘open door’ policy, this can makes them feel more comfortable at work, and in turn raises productivity and engagement. By ensuring that open and honest channels of conversation are established within your business, the stigma around mental health and wellbeing at work is slowly being eradicated.

What have you found to be the most successful or important ways to support employees around this?

We know that the principal relationship we all have isn’t necessarily with our company, but instead with our manger. Surveys have shown that people leave their manager, not the main organisation. Supporting employees with wellbeing should therefore be positioned as a manager-led process, and should entail what tools can be used to keep an eye on stress and mental health.

One way that this can be achieved is via a ‘WAP’ or wellness action plan. These tend to consist of 7 or 8 questions that allow the employee to demonstrate how they could let there manager know if they started to suffer with the symptoms of stress. As a two way process, it can also allow the employee to decide how they would like to be treated when stressed – e.g. would they prefer to have a daily chat, a weekly catch up or to be left alone?

These plans are always confidential between the two individuals, and are very rarely ever shared with HR. A variation can also be used amongst teams – for example, everyone has different working styles, so sharing information on preferred start / finish times, meeting times and styles, and the level of noise that can be tolerated can really help with overall morale and positivity levels. For larger teams, it can help them to understand each other and stops any relationship challenges developing.

What should individuals and organisations do to support and prevent stress?

At Mind, we would always advise that every organisation has a specific mental health and wellbeing policy. It doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate, but should ultimately outline exactly what your workplace’s strategy is for anyone that is having a difficult time, such as struggling with physical or mental health complaints. This could also include any occupational health schemes that you participate in, as well as outlining areas of your HR system that could help. Whilst there’s much that you can do to help, you should also reiterate and encourage the concept of personal responsibility but gives responsibility for remaining healthy at work. This could include advice around healthy diets, drinking alcohol, generally looking after yourself, and getting good quality sleep.

What does Mind recommend with regards to stress and mental health wellbeing?

The main way would encourage businesses to tackle such an issue is to analyse their team resources wherever they can. Consider such areas as; ensuring that you have enough people within your teams to deliver what is required, exerting key energy by training people in project planning so that managers fully understand deliverables and what is needed, and mapping out key projects and deadlines to prevent prolonged spikes in heavy working.

Of course, it goes without saying that life isn’t always perfect – businesses must recognise that sometimes extra effort may be needed for a fixed period of time, but when that’s over, you can then ensure that employees can gain back any overtime or else use flexi-time in order to regain there usual work/life balance. Focusing on resource and time planning is crucial.

Ultimately, the workplace can be stressful, and organisations cannot totally totally eliminate this, but they do have a responsible to ensure that busy working periods are as short as possible. This is a crucial way to prevent damage to employee welfare, as prolonged stressful periods can often lead to mental health damage and stress.

How do you personally deal with stress?

My number one way to de-stress after a busy day in the office is go out on a dog walk. I have two cockapoos, and always ensure that I leave work early if possible , or if I know I’m going to have a later finish, I ensure that I can fit in a walk with them earlier in the day.

I firmly believe that ‘a day without joy is a day lost,’ so I consider where I am most likely to receive that particular day’s quota of joy from, and dog walking is always a safe bet! Having an outlet that enables me to unwind and de-stress also aids me in gaining perspective – essentially it is important to remember that life isn’t all about work, and that gaining joy and satisfaction from your home life is equally important.