For many people workplace stress is a silent battle as they struggle to get by, fearful of the consequences of admitting to it. But it really shouldn't be that way - a stressed workforce points to failings elsewhere in the organisation. Employee wellbeing is as much the employers responsibility as any other aspect of health and safety.
Work related stress develops when a person feels they cannot cope with the tasks and demands being placed on them or when the demands of the job outweigh their skills and capabilities. This can affect the immune system, cause illness and is a significant cause of sickness absence, high turnover of staff and declining productivity.
Workplace stress is widespread and is not confined to executives or highly pressurised jobs. It affects people at all levels of a business and according to recent research it is not confined to any specific jobs, sectors or industries.
The signs of stress are many and varied and will differ depending on the individual affected. The most obvious signs, from an outside perspective, will be changes in behaviour - which may even impact on the behaviour of the team. An individual may be displaying mood swings, anxiety, become more emotional and over the long term develop worsening anxiety and depression. The individual may notice disturbed sleep patterns or insomnia, negative thoughts, difficulty concentrating and lack of confidence, poor memory and changes in appetite. Physical symptoms may include high blood pressure, increased heart rate, digestive upsets, skin conditions such as psoriasis and sweating or reddening of the skin, muscle tension, stiffness and soreness and suppression of the immune system.
Workplace stress may also affect a group or team. Signs can often be seen within the team and may include; disputes and disaffection within the group; increased staff turnover; increased sickness absence; increase in complaints and grievances; difficulty attracting new staff; poor performance; customer dissatisfaction.
It is not up to managers and employers to diagnose stress, but if you are concerned about an employee recommend that they see a GP. If you notice these signs and symptoms in an employee or group you have a responsibility to address the issues in the workplace that may be causing them, both for ethical and productivity reasons. Look at the work environment and consider how tasks are delegated, how skills are being optimised and how a person's workload suits their skills, knowledge and capabilities. Remember that stress can also be caused when employees feel that they are not achieving their potential; pressure and challenges can be exciting and motivating so long as it is within the person's capabilities to achieve them.
Look at ways to:
• Give all employees a chance to have their voice heard, put forward their thoughts and ideas and ensure these are welcomed and acted upon where necessary. Giving your employees 'ownership' of their role will increase job satisfaction and productivity.
• Once fully trained and competent, give employees room to breathe. Let them prioritise their workload, use their initiative and judgement. Let them know you are there and be approachable for support - only step in when you need to. If employees feel trusted their happiness and productivity will be raised.
• Design the workload and work space to encourage efficiency and challenge the individual without exceeding their capabilities. Structure workload (where possible) so that tasks are spread evenly and give enough notice notice of deadlines. Set realistic targets which inspire the employee to smash them. Reward success and achievements with praise and incentives and individuals should feel motivated to continue to exceed their best.
• Encourage an atmosphere where employees feel they can talk to managers about concerns or stress, without fearing for job security.