Stress-related absences are continuing to rise, with almost two-fifths of UK businesses reporting an increase over the past year, according to CIPD’s latest Health and Well-Being at Work report.

The finger of blame is being pointed at ‘management style’, which was cited by 43 per cent of survey respondents, together with heavy workloads, mentioned by 62 per cent as a direct cause of stress.

It’s a problem that just won’t go away – and as the CIPD has pointed out, it’s perhaps unfair to give managers all the flak, when there’s often a big gap between what the business expects them to do and the training they’re given to equip them for their role.

HR professionals have a clear role to play in ensuring health and well-being is taken seriously at work – and making sure it is implemented effectively on the ground on a day to day basis. So what practical steps can practitioners take to reduce stress levels and create healthier cultures where employees can thrive?

1. Understand what you are dealing with

Triggers for work-related stress will vary from one organisation to another. In one it may be poor communication and employees feeling they have no voice, while in another unrealistic targets and under-staffing may be the issue. Another research survey out this week, from Brickendon, suggests that the rise of hot-desking is also causing stress, with over 80 per cent of employees surveyed saying that issues like not knowing where they can sit and wasting time setting up a computer were negatively affecting their mental health. Understanding the root cause of the problem is the first step to trying to tackle it. HR systems can assist with exit interviews, staff surveys and focus groups, which can all help to give you a picture of what’s behind work-related stress and whether it’s an organisation-wide issue or a problem that’s more prevalent in some areas than others. Identifying the key issues will help HR target action appropriately and ensure that any investment made is well spent.

2. Get senior leaders on board

The CIPD’s survey highlighted a big difference between how strategically and pro-actively companies were supporting employee well-being. Two fifths of organisations taking part in the research had a stand-alone well-being strategy, while one in six were not doing anything at all to improve employee well-being. Getting those at the top to take the issue seriously is a key task for HR, who need to work alongside senior leaders to create the kind of people-centred, values-driven organisations that will lead to engaged, productive and happy staff. There are some indications that the issue is rising up the agenda. In this year’s survey, 61 per cent of respondents said it was an issue on senior leader’s radar, compared to 55 per cent last year. The key challenge is to make employee wellbeing part of the over-arching strategy, and integral to the way the company does business, and to move away from knee-jerk, stand-alone interventions.

3. Tackle management style and behaviour

Line managers may not be entirely to blame for work-related stress, but it certainly seems that some of their working styles and behaviours are contributing to the problem. Directive, inflexible styles of management can pile the pressure on, while seemingly ‘unapproachable’ managers deter employees from speaking up when they are struggling for fear they will be perceived as ‘weak’ or incapable. Cultures can’t be changed overnight, but HR can do much to encourage managers to create open environments where dialogue is encouraged and issues can be raised without fear of consequence. Line managers also frequently need help in understanding the importance of regular, constructive feedback and in how they can communicate and support their teams through change. It’s important not to assume that line managers will automatically be skilled at managing their people’s workloads and setting clear objectives and realistic deadlines. Often, they have been promoted into a role because of their technical expertise rather than their people skills. Without help, they will emulate the management styles that they see around them, or that they have experienced themselves in the past.

4. Train managers to spot the signs of stress

Less than half of the organisations surveyed for the CIPD report were providing mental health training – whether that was training managers to support staff or supporting employees themselves in building resilience. Managers need to be aware of the signs of stress in their teams so that they can step in and help as early as possible – whether that means lending a listening ear, adjusting someone’s workload or referring them to more specialist support. Training and resources to help managers spot the signs of stress are now widely available – and a growing number of organisations are also investing in building internal teams of mental health ‘first aiders’. HR are also in a good position to encourage line managers to adopt good working practices – such as having regular one-to-ones with their people and making a discussion about workloads part of the agenda for team meetings. A people management software could help with this. Getting to know employees better will help managers understand what people’s stress triggers are and whether they feel secure and supported in their jobs – while open dialogue in the team will encourage people to share concerns and support their colleagues.

5. Encourage small ways to promote well-being

Sometimes it’s the small, seemingly insignificant things that can make a real difference to the way people feel about their jobs and their ability to cope when the pressure is on. HR has a role to play in encouraging positive practices that will have a real impact on engagement and well-being. It’s about making it clear that people are encouraged to take proper lunch breaks, leave on time and use their full allocation of annual leave, for example. Organising activities that bring people together, such as lunchtime walking groups, after work yoga or informal opportunities for employees to socialise with their peers can also help to reduce stress and make people feel valued and included. Being truly open to flexible working arrangements is also key. Full flexibility may not be possible for all roles, but there are very few jobs where it is impossible to introduce at least a small element of flex – which can often make a big difference to people’s ability to cope and juggle the demands being placed on them.

Want to find out more about how to deal with stress at work? Check out these three ways you can boost happiness at your company.

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.