In a recent study conducted by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), encompassing 900 companies and over 6.5 million employees, a staggering 76% reported taking short-term absences within the past year. What’s even more concerning is that mental health was cited as the cause for 63% of long-term absences. Katrina Thomas, Practice Development Manager at Thrive Mental Wellbeing explains why it is vital, as business owners and as managers of people, that we understand how workplace stress can affect our colleagues and recognise the signals that someone may be struggling.
Understanding stress in the workplace is a nuanced endeavour. Stress isn’t inherently negative; it has both positive and negative aspects that are often misunderstood. Healthy stress levels can serve as a motivator, enhancing focus, commitment, teamwork, and a positive workplace culture. However, the key lies in perceived stress and a sense of control. High stress, when coupled with a high degree of control and a positive work environment, can actually boost motivation and performance..
However, it is crucial to understand that it is all about perceived stress and being in control. It is perfectly possible to have a high level of stress if accompanied by high control – if you are part of a positive culture and working environment. A person who has the balance will be motivated, will perform better and will thrive in their role.
Conversely, when high demands meet low control, perceived stress can surpass an individual’s coping mechanisms, leading to a feeling of helplessness. Recognising this tipping point is crucial for colleagues and support networks to step in and offer assistance.
The signals of workplace stress
The signals of workplace stress are multifaceted and may include isolation, presenteeism, cognitive fog, changes in language, increased breaks, and physical manifestations such as tension and decreased appetite. Stress can also impact the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses.
What you may not be aware of is during the early part of the stress response and throughout, the body releases a stress hormone ( amongst others ) called cortisol, which can reduce the activity of the immune system by affecting the way our white blood cells work. Prolonged reactions to perceived stress can lead to something called chronic stress, which may manifest as fatigue, irritability, headaches, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, weight gain, and increased blood pressure.
Managing colleagues with increased stress
Whilst mental wellbeing and mental health have seen a growth in awareness, especially in the last few years, it is impossible to deny that the taboo still exists. There is still a stigma about admitting that your mental wellbeing is suffering. Whilst improvements have been made, we need to address the fear and encourage an environment of empathy, trust and openness.
In the workplace, there is an expectation that we will thrive, succeed and be part of a well-oiled machine. If you are not feeling a part of that structure, it adds additional pressure and can reduce the likelihood that an employee suffering from high demand and low control will open up about it. It is, therefore, vital that our teams know that the ‘machine’ does not function unless everyone can play their part to the best of their ability. Without a doubt, that starts from the top and the culture that we cultivate in our workplaces.
At Thrive, we are developing tools for managers to help them cultivate supportive environments for their teams. Initiating conversations about mental well-being, including stress, is a two-way street; employees may fear speaking to their managers just as much as managers may fear approaching their employees. Building trust and confidence is key to breaking down these barriers. Managers who are well-informed about the effects of poor mental well-being are better equipped to create a culture of openness, empathy, compassion, and support.
As a manager or leader, you need more confidence to build trust. To build confidence, requires education. Suppose you understand the effects of poor mental wellbeing and how to address them. In that case, you are more likely to succeed in developing an improved culture within your business – one of openness, empathy, compassion and support. If your colleagues see you are engaged with wellbeing practices, it will diminish the stigma and begin to break down the barriers.
Challenges of hybrid and remote working
The rise of hybrid and remote working presents additional challenges. While these new modes of work are popular, they’ve altered the social contract between employers and employees. In an office setting, it was easier to gauge if colleagues were showing signs of stress, but now, with employees scattered in various locations, maintaining a culture that supports positive mental well-being has become more complex.
It’s more critical than ever to recognize that each colleague is unique and may have different needs. Businesses must address challenges related to communication, clarify the company’s structure and support network for fully remote employees, and consider how workplace relationships are evolving.
Whilst remote and hybrid working may present an additional challenge, it is not impossible to create the right culture for your business. It will, however, take some time to do research – with external sources and colleagues – to find the right solution for your business. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. If we can clearly define our cultural goals, it is much easier to find the correct answers to many problems.
Advice to leaders
As a leader, employer, manager or business owner, we have the responsibility for the welfare of our employees and to show them that we care. Whilst it will take time to research, learn and find the right solutions for your business, it is equally important to look after yourself. If your mental wellbeing is under pressure, you must help yourself first before you can assist your colleagues. Whilst the challenge may be daunting, the rewards make it all worthwhile.