Tackling Workplace Stress Head On

Gerard O’ Hanlon is a Director at Stredia, a company which provides software tools and consultancy services to identify and measure the causes of stress within the workplace, and provide measures and interventions to eliminate or reduce them.

In this week’s guest blog, he underlines some of the key factors in workplace stress. Over to you Gerard!

When Anna asked me to write a piece on workplace stress for the Yara blog I immediately said yes: it’s a great opportunity to get to share my thoughts with the forward-thinking professionals who work with Yara to improve the people management skills of their organisations. Then came the anxiety! What if I’m not up to the high standard that is usual in the blog? What am I going to say to HR professionals that they don’t already know about workplace stress? I began to feel a little … well .. stressed. To eliminate this stressful situation I had two options either write the blog or tell Anna that I couldn’t… So here it is.


Identify the signs early on

We all know the signs of stress, don’t we? It’s important to be able to recognise the early symptoms, and to take action before stress becomes a real problem.

Symptoms include nervous habits, poor concentration, poor memory retention, performance dip, missed deadlines, uncharacteristic errors, emotional outbursts, anger, tantrums, loss of appetite, violent or anti-social behaviour,  sleep difficulties, alcohol or drug abuse.

Become self aware (or listen to what your friends, family and colleagues are telling you) and learn to recognise these signs as soon as they occur.


Know what causes stress

Can we list all the causes of these symptoms? They’ll vary from person to person.

One teacher we were working with explained it very simply.  When she was asked, “what causes you stress at work?” she  replied, “Nothing causes me stress at work”. Then she paused and said, “but everything causes me stress at work! It’s all those small things that seem to go wrong all at once”.

Be aware of ‘flashpoints’ that cause stress and develop your management skills to eliminate or reduce these. If you cannot eliminate or reduce flashpoints then you will need to develop coping strategies for yourself and your staff, and where possible to plan ahead for when you know times may be particularly challenging.

Don’t underestimate the impact on business

Stress has a high human cost, and its impact on business is hugely significant.

In the UK over 13 million working days are lost every year because of stress.

UK HSE statistics suggest that stress-related costs to UK employers are in the region of £700m every year, and the cost of stress to society is estimated at £7bn per year.

Stress is believed to trigger 70% of visits to doctors, and 85% of serious illnesses (UK HSE stress statistics).

It’s little short of a silent epidemic. And yet many companies do little to actively avoid it and to counteract its effects, until it becomes too late.

Know the law … and best practice

Stress caused at work provides a serious risk of litigation for employers and organisations, carrying significant liabilities for damages, bad publicity and loss of reputation. Dealing with stress-related claims also consumes vast amounts of management time. The cost of a stress claim counting time and money can easily reach £200,000 and more.

Of course we cannot be everywhere all the time to monitor these causes: we have to trust our line managers to be able to identify and address issues. But line managers have responsibility for delivering performance on a day to day basis and identifying and addressing stress might not be high on their list of priorities.

Employers should aim to provide a stress-free work environment, and recognise where the causes of stress may become a problem for staff. Critically, they MUST take action to reduce the causes of stress, and not merely expect people to treat the symptoms.

Stress in the workplace reduces productivity, increases management pressures, and makes people ill in many ways, evidence of which is still increasing. Workplace stress affects the performance of the brain, including functions of work performance: memory, concentration, and learning.

By using the risk management methodology recommended by the HSE in their stress management standards, HR and H&S managers can quickly identify patterns of management that increase the chances of stress occurring in the workplace and develop simple strategies to address them.

At Stredia we like to get managers and staff to think about the things at work that can cause frustration and annoyance, why? Because it is constant frustration and annoyance that can lead to stress happening at work.  When using the management standards, by presenting the information collected intelligently, we can help managers and staff identify these frustrations and develop and prioritise interventions.

Mind your language

What we’ve found is that there is a language issue around the whole area of stress. Whilst employers should create a stress free environment, there will still be pressures, frictions and frustrations, and not all of these are always universally bad.

The Stredia ethos in dealing with stress is to remove the word from the employees vocabulary, always defining specifics such as those mentioned above and talking about pressure, friction, frustration, and so on.

Identifying and addressing the tipping point at which these become unsustainable stress lies at the heart of the matter.

Little things can make a big difference

If you are suffering from stress or you know anyone who is, here are short term interventions you can put into practice. Bear in mind, though, that addressing the CAUSES of workplace stress is going to be the key factor for lasting success.

• Deep breathing is a well known relaxation technique. Breath in through your nose slowly and deeply as you count to 4, then breath out slowly through your mouth as you count to 6 – repeat this three times. As you get used to this deep breathing you can increase the repetitions to 5 times, then 7 times; be careful not to overdo it at the start as you could become light-headed.

• One of the best and simplest interventions is humour, smiling in the face of adversity and retaining a sense of perspective. This is another reason I like working with Yara: there is always a vibrant, good-humoured atmosphere during training.

• Get some exercise. There’s a significant body of research that links exercise with stress reduction. You don’t have to take up a sport or become competitive, just do something to get moving. Yoga is particularly good for stress management – or it might mean simply going for a walk.

• Make sure you take a lunch break AWAY from your desk, and give yourself short breaks from time to time. I have a personal thought here for all of you smokers out there: it’s as much the getting away from your desk that helps calm you as the cigarette itself! Just a thought …

• Keep a good supply of water near to hand so that you can keep yourself hydrated; it will help stop you from getting tired and cranky, and aids brain function.

• Much research has been carried out on the impact of music. Develop a playlist of relaxing music on your ipod or phone.

• Learn to say ‘no’. Don’t take too much on, as this can lead to overwork, time pressures, and stress.

There are lots of exercises available to help reduce personal stress and build up resilience. But the best way to manage stress is to prevent it from developing in the first place. Above all, it’s vital to recognise it and address it rather than trying to struggle on. If you know anyone at your workplace that should be using these exercises because of their work environment or workload, then your organisation is causing stress at work.

At the end of the day, if someone was being PHYSICALLY injured at work, you wouldn’t just teach them how to put up with it, or to become more resilient. You’d take serious measures to stop it happening. If you’re not taking the causes of stress at work seriously right now, it’s time to do that.


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