How organisations can manage stress in the workplace

09 January 2019 6 min. read
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Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show that between 2017 and 2018, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 15.4 million lost working days. Besides the productivity impact, if left unchecked, stress can also have a detrimental impact on both the physical and mental wellbeing of people, growing into the underlying cause of some more serious health issues. Janice Haddon, managing director of HR consultancy Morgan Redwood, reflects on how organisations can manage stress in the workplace. 

Mental health is defined as a level of psychological wellbeing or an absence of mental illness. It includes our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing, which affects how we think, feel and behave. The Mental Health Foundation define stress as ‘the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.’ 

In the short-term, stress triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response which sees the body flooded with adrenaline – increasing the heart and breathing rate, as the body readies itself for physical activity. This prepares us to ‘stand and fight’, ‘run for our lives’ or enter into a ‘frozen’ state, when we are unable to do anything at all. In the modern world, this can see us entering into arguments, being withdrawn, avoiding or extracting ourselves from situations or even remaining in a situation but being unable to gather our thoughts together to know what to do next – total freeze and an inability to converse or make rational decisions.

Stress at work

So, what can organisations do to manage stress and keep positive mental health within the workplace? Well, studies show employees don’t leave an organisation, but instead leave their boss. Not only is it expensive to recruit new staff, but organisations can also be liable for huge tribunal claims if they do not get their management right.

How organisations can manage stress in the workplace

Training managers is key for two reasons. Leadership style, communication and listening skills are fundamentals for staff to understand expectations and be able to engage in open dialogue. A directive, bullying style puts people under pressure and can be a major cause of stress in the workplace. The second element of the training needs to ensure that managers are aware of what the causes and symptoms of stress are. Being able to identify things early can ensure staff are supported, so they don’t end up going down a slippery slope and taking time off sick.

Having the right skill set to support and coach employees in the workplace is also fundamental. There is obviously a legal requirement to have certain employment policies in place. Getting these right and training managers in their correct use will ensure all employees know what is expected of them, where they stand with regards to acceptable behaviours and what they can expect to happen in certain situations.

A code of conduct is the foundation, together with all of the essential policies that enable both managers and employees to ensure everyone is treated fairly. Furthermore, giving individuals clarity over their role, performance and expectations will enable leaders to manage their teams effectively. This will in turn support the manager’s ability to stay in control of the workload and keep their own stress levels at bay. 

For individuals, having a job description and fully defined duties will enable them to know what is expected of them. Providing training and development to ensure staff reach acceptable competence levels will also support keeping their anxiety and stress levels at bay. For teams, knowing individual responsibilities in addition to what the whole team is seeking to achieve, will develop an ethos of trust, support and team work.

Company culture

Getting the right company culture with shared vision and values will also enable everyone to flourish. When positive values are maintained from the top down, individuals will know how they can expect to be treated and that their personal values can be respected. Asking employees ‘what is it like to work here’ will give you key insights. 

“There is much that can be done to boost physical and mental health in the workplace, and in doing so will see organisations flourish and reach peak performance.”
– Janice Haddon, Morgan Redwood

Undertaking employee feedback and engagement surveys will provide senior leaders with key insights into what staff think and feel. Including the right questions concerning how well workload, pressure and stress are managed as well as levels of engagement and feedback on leadership style also provides key data. This will enable an organisation to make the right changes with a focus to ensure all areas of the business are performing to the required standards.

Supporting employees with positive mental health by building up their resilience and wellbeing is now becoming more commonplace in workplaces, but there is still so much more that can be done. It is not simply a question of rebadging health and safety policies, but developing true, engrained policies that support physical and mental health at all levels within the organisation.

As well as healthy options in staff canteens and support for gym memberships or onsite facilities to boost exercise, organisations can provide ‘lunch and learn’ sessions and workshops to inform staff on a range of topics. Knowledge on healthy eating options, heart health, how to build resilience and handle pressure and stress, work life balance and relaxation techniques, all enable staff to make informed choices in their decisions. Having champions and trained mental health counsellors within the workplace is another way of making it ‘OK’ to talk about issues and resolve difficulties before they spiral out of control.

There is much that can be done to boost physical and mental health in the workplace, and in doing so will see organisations flourish and reach peak performance.

About the author: Janice Haddon is the founder and managing director of Morgan Redwood and Thrive in Life 360. She has over 25 years' experience in strategic and operational human resources and management consultancy.