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Stress in the workplace - what we can all do

Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), May 14 -20 is Mental Health Awareness Week and this year the focus is on stress in the workplace. 

The aim of Mental Health Awareness Week is to tackle stress, as stress is often an early sign of deteriorating mental health. By tackling it early, before it becomes more serious, it can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and, in some instances, self-harm and suicide.

There is no single definition of stress, however it often involves a continuous period where a person suffers from anxiety and worry, accompanied by a constant feeling of dread, leading to sleeplessness and headaches. Significantly, two thirds of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes and stress, especially in the workplace, is a primary reason for this. 

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) carried out one of the largest surveys ever on the nation’s mental health, surveying more than 4,500 people regarding stress in the workplace.

Interestingly, it found that millennials, those aged between 18 and 38, felt more under pressure at work than their baby boomer colleagues with more than a quarter (28%) stating that working through stress was expected in their job, compared to just 12% of those aged between 53 and 71.

Similarly, about a third of millennials (34%) said that they felt stress made them less productive at work versus around a fifth (19%) of their older counterparts.

Overall, the data also revealed that across both generations just 14% of people said they were comfortable speaking to their manager about their stress levels and three out of four of all adults surveyed felt overwhelmed or unable to cope in past year because of stress.

The report calls for societal change in the way mental health is treated, alongside new rules for employers to treat stress and mental health risks as seriously as physical health and safety.

Richard Grange, a spokesman for the Mental Health Foundation, commented on the launch of the survey: “The mental health impact of work can follow us home. A good job where we feel secure and supported can boost our mental health. But poor and insecure working conditions undermine good mental health.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Tackling stress through positive mental health support not only improves our lives as individuals, but makes good business sense - failure to adequately support the workforce is costing our economy up to £99bn per year.”

Indeed, stress and mental health is the fourth-most common reason for workplace absence; over 11million days are lost at work very year because of stress, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), however half of workers make up another excuse when they feel too stressed to come to work. “Introducing and incentivising the use of mental health days could help to prevent stress escalating and turning into longer-term sickness absence, by encouraging self-care,” the report says.

The good news is that the stigma of mental health issues over the last few years has become less, especially as more and more public figures have been open about their struggles and there are many more workplaces that place their workforces mental health as a priority, however there is still so much more work to be done.

So, how can we help manage stress in the workplace?

  • Have open dialog - a good starting point is encouraging people to talk about their own mental health. There is a similar role for managers and senior figures. If senior members of an organisation are willing to talk about their own experiences with their mental health, it sends a powerful signal to everyone. Include a section on the staff website about stress, recognising the symptoms and ways to reduce stress such as exercise. Make sure staff are aware this section is there.

  • Offer training - train managers to recognise stress, anxiety and depression and how to manage staff with mental health issues.

  • Encourage people to self-care - advise people to take regular breaks and not eat lunch at their desks. Time away from their desk and perhaps going for a walk outside can help people feel more refreshed and less stressed.

  • Offer flexible working patterns - consider introducing flexible working practices and allowing people to work at home when appropriate. 

  • Work at getting ‘buy in’ - look at ways to improve employee engagement and morale. Consider introducing Friday afternoon drinks to thank everyone for their hard work or a monthly team outing for lunch.

  • Monitor the problem - it is essential to monitor absence trends and consider conducting back to work interviews when people are off sick, so that employees can talk about any issues that might be causing them stress. 

  • Praise often - create a positive working culture by regularly praising and recognising achievements and encourage employees to suggest new ideas and become more involved in the goals of the organisation.