I can’t help feeling it’s apt that I should be blogging about stress in the workplace on a day when the computer’s been condemned by the repair man and I’ve just had to climb into a communal bin to retrieve the keys my mother managed to throw in along with her rubbish.

On a pressure scale of 1-10, I’d say I’m hovering around nine and am fit to explode if just one more thing conspires to defeat me today. I am taking some comfort, however, from research that shows I’m probably not alone in my agitation.

Stress in the workplace is rife, and has now become the most common cause of long-term sickness absence. In a recent CIPD survey, 44 per cent of employees said they were under excessive pressure, either every day or at least once or twice a week. UK plc is clearly cracking under the strain – and it’s a problem that employers need to take seriously.

Of course businesses do have a legal responsibility to manage their work in a way that keeps stress to a minimum. But it’s not just about paying lip service to the legislation.

Stress in the workplace: the productivity killer

A stressed employee is generally not a particularly productive one. They find it hard to concentrate and focus on the task in hand, they lack motivation and enthusiasm and before long it starts to have a negative impact on the rest of the team. In an SME, where everyone’s contribution counts, the effect of just one person beginning to buckle can be huge. Performance and productivity suffers and there’s a direct impact on the bottom line.

HR people have an important role to play in helping to create a calm and supportive culture within the business. Indeed, their role is more important now than ever, at a time when the difficult economic climate is putting employees under pressure to meet tough targets with limited resources.

They can help the business design jobs and organise work more efficiently. They can train line managers in the skills they need to manage performance effectively and build good relationships with their teams. They can employ the latest HR software solutions to help track and manage absence and spot people who may be struggling and need support early on. (see below for our check-list on how HR can help the business keep a lid on stress)

What often goes unrecognised, however, is that HR people themselves are not immune to pressure. In recessionary times, they are probably one of the most lambasted professions, often unfairly taking the flak for the latest re-organisation or round of redundancies.

They are the jam in the middle of the corporate sandwich. From above, directors are demanding they find ways to cut staff numbers, improve performance and ensure the best talent doesn’t swan off to the competition. At the same time, employees are knocking on their door with concerns about burgeoning workloads and complaints about the way they are being managed and compensated.

With so many conflicting pressures, it’s hardly surprising the task of tackling the root causes of stress tends to get put on the back burner. This is an area, however, where prevention is definitely better than cure.

Time spent reviewing people management policies and practices is likely to pay dividends in terms of reduced absenteeism, higher job satisfaction and improved morale. HR people, however, also need to take better care of themselves and make sure they are equipped with the tools and techniques that will help them build personal resilience and cope with the unrelenting pace of change.

How HR can help the business keep the lid on stress in the workplace….

  • Review job design: Are your people having to deal with conflicting demands from different departments? Is there a way to organise work differently so that staff can focus on what’s important rather than being pulled in all directions?
  • Equip people to do the job: Do people have the information they need to complete tasks? Do they have the necessary equipment (and is it working properly?) Are managers giving them the autonomy and responsibility they need to perform well in their role? Often, employers expect people to do a job, but put barriers in the way of them achieving their targets, causing frustration and stress as a result.
  • Support managers: Often it’s individual managers that set the tone in their team or department. Make sure managers are equipped with the skills to delegate, plan and resource projects, manage the performance of their people and build healthy and productive relationships with their teams.
  • Encourage healthy lifestyles: Wellness programmes can help employees develop personal resilience and cope better when they are under pressure. Dietary advice, subsidised gym membership and lunchtime classes where people can learn relaxation techniques are just a few initiatives that have been successful in SMEs.
  • Get more family friendly: Providing a flexible and family friendly working environment can do much to alleviate stress among employees. If they are worrying about child or elder care responsibilities or constantly rushing to pick up from school on time they won’t be relaxed and focusing on the job in hand. Helping staff to achieve appropriate work life balance can make a huge difference to their ability to cope with pressure.
  • Make use of technology: Sophisticated HR software solutions are now available to help people manage performance and monitor absence. A consistent approach to performance management helps to ensure everyone is clear about business goals and where you want them to focus their efforts. Absence management software can help you track and monitor absence and pick up on people who may be struggling early on so that you can intervene and offer support.
  • Be open and supportive: There’s a tendency for stress to get brushed under the carpet. Employees often don’t want to admit they are struggling to cope and may even be afraid to speak out in case they lose their job. Encourage people to talk openly about any issues they may be facing and make it clear that the business wants to help and support them.
  • Make it fun: It’s tough out there and employers want people to take the job seriously and work hard – but that doesn’t mean work can’t be fun. Encourage (appropriate) humour and a light-hearted approach, allow teams to celebrate successes together and organise occasional social, sporting or community activities. And don’t forget to smile and say thank you!
Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.