Dealing with stress in the workplace can be extremely difficult. Both employers and employees are often unsure about how to talk about it and this can lead to difficulties being ignored or hidden until it is too late and the employee takes time off work. Employers are usually more comfortable in addressing the situation at that point, but many still don’t know how best to approach it.
Unfortunately, there are no set rules that can be applied to every situation, as stress is something which affects people very differently. The approach will also depend on the type of culture your organisation has. However, there are some best practices to consider.
- Prevention is better than cure: Being aware of the pressures on your staff and how they feel about them before it becomes a problem is better than just trying to offer support once the problem has arisen
- Talk about it: Regular conversations should be taking place between managers and employees about how they are feeling, so that concerns can be spotted early on
- Stress risk assessments: These are available on the HSE website and the points covered within them can be used during these discussions
- Training: Managers should be trained on the importance of this regular interaction and on how to deal with what can be difficult conversations
- Educate employees: Employees should be made aware that they have a responsibility to look after their own health and that they need to notify you if they are concerned
- Have clear guidelines: There is no requirement to have a “stress policy” but it is important that employees know who to turn to and that managers know they should be offering support
- Be flexible: Every situation is different so you will need to be flexible in your approach and listen to the individual employee
- Stay in touch: If employees are absent, agreeing a frequency of contact with the employee can be helpful. You need to ensure that the employee does not feel completely cut off and forgotten about, but equally does not feel that there is too much contact which is causing them further stress
- Think long term: If the stress becomes long term or recurring, you may need to obtain medical evidence to try to establish the triggers and the support that may help
- Investigate fully: Where employees are absent or are struggling to meet the requirements of their role, rather than jumping straight into a disciplinary, capability or absence management process, you should investigate the cause of the concern. The problem may not be the employee and simple adjustments to the role or the working environment may resolve the situation
- Consider discrimination: Before taking any action against an employee for stress related conduct or performance, you should consider the risk of disability discrimination, ensure you have relevant information including medical evidence and consider whether the action you are proposing can be justified in that it is for a legitimate aim and is proportionate
- Legal and business outcomes are different: Remember that what might be acceptable in a legal context for dealing with stressed employees may not always give the business the best outcome
- Remember your other employees: When supporting / managing an employee who is suffering from stress, you shouldn’t forget that other employees will be watching what you are doing. A perception that the organisation is not supporting someone appropriately can have a negative impact on more than just the individual involved.
There is no doubt that managing stress within the workplace is a difficult challenge which requires sensitivity, capable managers, and forward planning. But following these top tips will ensure that you stay within the law, and most importantly, support your employees through a difficult time and continue to build a strong and resilient workforce.
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