Stress is something we all deal with in different situations throughout our lives and considering the amount of time we spend in our workplace; it is the last environment we want stress to be affecting us and our performance.
Each individual has their own way of dealing with stress, but if it is rearing its head in the workplace, employers and human resources professionals need to know how to identify it in an employee and how to deal with it.
Identifying stress in employees
According to AIM WA Head of Product Design and Delivery Graeme Robb, it wasn’t until the early 1900’s, when Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon identified the “fight-or-flight” stress response system, that we really started to understand what stress was. As we have grown in that understanding, most people are aware of many of the signs and symptoms of stress.
He said that “Some of the more obvious signs are irritability; feelings of anxiety or depression; lack of enjoyment; a sense of dread; feeling lonely; feeling underappreciated; and feeling overwhelmed.”
At this stage, the most important thing an organisation can do is create a process for employees to talk about their mental health, enabling them to express their concerns about their stress levels and to know that the organisation will take it seriously.
Reinvention Consulting Founder and Organisational Psychologist Vanessa Vershaw said in addition to the obvious behaviours, employers needed to look out for more avoidant or withdrawal behaviours such as non-participation, absenteeism, missing deadlines and an overall lack of responsiveness.
“Self-sabotage behaviours need to be identified and can be things like arguing with the boss, saying inappropriate things without fear of repercussion and dangerous levels of bravado,” she said.
“One indicator that people don’t normally recognise is what I like to call the ‘Mary Poppins’ syndrome."
"This is when an individual is overly effusive, positive and on a manic high.
“I am always wary of people who are on too much of a high, as it is unsustainable and usually indicative that they have further to fall when they get off their happy edge.”
Reducing stress in the workplace
There are several things employers can do to reduce the chance of stress in the workplace, such as being aware of the four main factors of stress at work – psychological demand, job control, organisational support and job uncertainty among staff.
“If we look back at some of the signs and symptoms mentioned earlier, one of the most important support mechanisms an organisation needs to have in place, especially in times of change, is to have a leadership team who are committed to providing timely, clear, and complete communication to all involved,’ Mr Robb said.
“To reduce stress in the workplace, this may include things like having a true “open door” policy; checking in regularly to ask how things are; and setting aside time each week to address workplace concerns.”
Other ways of reducing stress that employers can use include “offering flexible hours; ensuring a safe working environment; de-stigmatising work-related stress; introducing workplace wellness schemes; providing resources and support; and ensuring that everyone is properly trained for their job” he said.
In relation to organisational support, Ms Vershaw believes employers need to design jobs based on who employees are.
“I encourage employers to hire for character and potential and then co-design a role with the employee to create a bespoke employee experience based on strengths and interests,” she said.
“It’s how we most fully engage people and unlock their potential.”
Another example of support, according to Mr Robb, is for leaders to model the way.
“At the risk of sounding like Management 101, the most important thing that every leader in your organisation needs to do to help reduce stress in the workplace is to lead by example.”
In addition to demonstrating balance in their own approach to working days, Mr Robb gave three other ways of showing leadership by example that involve encouragement:
1. Encouraging employees (and yourself) to take stress seriously - if you haven’t already done so, implement an employee wellbeing program so that you can provide information about stress management and therapies to help people deal with stress at work.
2. Encouraging mindfulness in your team (don’t forget that it’s for you too) - whilst there are many benefits claimed for mindfulness, the big one is reduced anxiety and stress.
3. Encouraging your employees to move their bodies - ensure your team members, including yourself, take regular breaks such as a quick walk, some short yoga workouts or stretches, or a walking lunch.
Prioritising mental wellbeing
As well as addressing the four main factors of stress at work, organisations can enforce workplace strategies to ensure they are doing everything they can to keep the stress of employees at a minimum and prevent it from escalating to an unwanted level.
Ms Vershaw said leaders needed to step up and look after the mental wellbeing of their staff.
“Leaders need to improve their emotional literacy and skills to build empathic environments and cultures of care,” she said.
“They need to be able to have tough conversations to identify and resolve emotionally charged issues causing tension and discomfort quickly and constructively.”
Bringing a sense of normalcy to discussions about mental health is an important strategy that leaders should implement, according to Ms Vershaw.
“Leaders and workplace cultures need to evolve to celebrate the courage that comes from sharing our vulnerabilities and challenges in the hopes that we are stronger by solving this together rather than alone,” she said.
“Leaders must stop making mental health solely a tick-the-box exercise and work with trained providers who will help them to deliver real change by building adaptive mindsets and collective organisational resilience.”
Mr Robb said that it has been pleasing to see how much mental wellbeing has become front-of-mind for many organisations since he began working in the area in 2015, although then the focus was on mental ‘illness’ rather than mental ‘health’.
“While much has been done by Organisations, Governments, Not-for-profits, and Individuals, there is still a lot of work to be done. This requires organisations to have a culture of full support from the top echelons, and this can’t be a ‘box-ticking’ mentality.
“Individuals need to be equipped with a good understanding of what concepts such as Stress and Mental Wellbeing are, and what they should and shouldn’t do when faced with the signs and symptoms of stress.”