Business psychologist Portia Hickey discusses the impact of workplace stress and what can be done to help.
The causes of workplace stress are manifold, often highly personal, and frequently outside the control of the employer, but there is a common theme. Stress arises when people feel a lack of control over their work situation, especially when the demands placed on them are unreasonable or ill-defined.
Whatever the cause, there is no doubting the negative impacts workplace stress has on business and wider society, both financially and in terms of individual health and wellbeing.
While estimates of the financial cost of workplace stress in the UK vary widely – from tens of billions to hundreds of billions of pounds each year – everyone agrees they are real and significant. There are the direct performance impacts of absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. There are also the harder to measure, but perhaps more problematic, negative impacts of lack of engagement and motivation, and potentially negative and destructive behaviour.
A recent study by work management solution specialist Wrike that found that 94 per cent of employees reported feeling stress at work, and almost one-third said their stress level was ‘high’ to ‘unsustainably high’. More than half (54 per cent) of those taking part in the study said that they lost sleep as a result of workplace stress, and most were more likely to quit (25 per cent) or seek professional help (15 per cent) than raise problems through official channels (12 per cent).
These findings chime with my own experience of working with FTSE 100 companies and professional service firms; workplace stress is widespread and has a significant impact on our lives outside of work. A long-term lack of proper sleep, for example, can have a profound effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. What is more, it’s increasingly difficult to separate our home and work lives, largely because we are more connected than ever before.
This constant connectivity is itself a double-edged sword. For example, the Wrike report found that some employees check 16 or more different apps every day to keep up to speed – contributing to a feeling of being frantic and disengaged.
One especially striking finding of the Wrike study was that more than 11 per cent of workers reported work stress having a negative impact on their home life every day. This should be a matter of concern for any employer. Typically, the stress results from employees feeling they do not have control or influence over their work. Often, the workload is more than can be physically done in the time available, which can lead to over-work and feelings of failure.
Dealing with workplace stress helps companies boost productivity and performance by maintaining a healthy, engaged and resilient workforce, operating in a well-managed, supportive environment. A key part of this is understanding its root cause.
According to the Wrike study, the top three sources of stress all relate to breakdowns in teamwork and collaboration: poor communication (39 per cent), team members not pulling their weight (28 per cent) and bottlenecks and waiting on others (25 per cent).
In tackling the issue of workplace stress, employers need to consider how to improve the way they assign, manage and prioritise workload – communicated in a way that is clear, organised and realistic – with the continuing involvement and buy-in of employees.
Here are some ways companies can start to take control and deal with workplace stress.
Set clear, simple priorities
A good place to start with managing stress is to establish clear and simple goals, with no more than five priorities each day. Prioritising tasks that have the largest positive impact or add the most value is a useful way to distil workload and focus time and effort.
Often, simply creating a space for people to discuss mental wellbeing and stress levels can help them feel that they’re being listened to. One real-world example of this is digital agency Rocketmakers, which has a dedicated Slack channel for discussing mental wellbeing. Staff can share their issues, and colleagues can respond with thoughts and suggestions.
Educate line managers
Line manager behaviour is fundamental in addressing workplace stress. This is why, for example, the Bank of England has implemented a programme to develop its line managers’ skills in identifying potential mental health problems, and build their confidence to support employees.
Automate work management
In my experience, collaboration and work management software can really help people focus, prioritise and, therefore, be less stressed at work. Such systems provide automated templates for assigning tasks, creating deadlines and managing workload. What is more, they are transparent, so everyone knows how much work each member of the team has; managers can see and help manage each team member’s workload. Such capabilities can go a long way to helping people manage their time, communicate more efficiently and delegate to other team members.
For employers, helping employees be more effective in their workload management creates a more empowered and productive organisation – and that’s a positive outcome for everyone.
Portia Hickey is a chartered business psychologist. She co-developed Thrive Matters and advises Fortune and FTSE 100 companies on how to develop employees to have a resilient, high potential mindset.