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Mental Health Awareness Week – Three ways companies can reduce stress for employees at work

It is Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 and this year’s theme is stress. In the second of a two-part blog, we look at three ways businesses can start addressing workplace stress.

In the first part of this blog, I discussed the difference between addressing the symptoms of stress with well-meaning, but ultimately pointless, “work and well-being” programmes. An employer brand can do a lot to improve its reputation with employees by addressing the causes of stress with job-directed or organisational-level interventions. Attitudes towards mental health are important when thinking through employee engagement strategies.

It’s fair to say that there is agreement at policy level that “psychosocial” hazards such as long working hours, weak job control and high job demands are major contemporary challenges facing organisations and society at large. This type of hazardous working environment results in absenteeism, high turnover and dysfunctional relationships at work.

Here are three ways to start addressing the causes of stress in the workplace:

Employee involvement

Those at the coalface of an organisation have the best understanding of the problems in the workplace. So, interventions to tackle poor well-being and stress are most likely to succeed when employees, union representatives and safety representatives get together to influence the working environment.

Employees tend to be pragmatic and so they may also be the best source of straightforward and cost-effective suggestions. They should also be allowed to judge where to focus, rather than having terms of reference decided beforehand by others.

Everything should be up for possible change.

Employees may look at changing the task of a role; changing the context, i.e. the hours, the workload, the rotas and working day; providing role clarity – knowing what’s expected in a particular role – and improving working relationships. Most of the time, a mixture of several or all four of these will be used.

High-quality research has shown that by empowering employees in deciding on workplace interventions, both social support and job satisfaction increases. And employee participation in developing the interventions has gained vocal support from the World Health Organization, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and the International Labour Organization.

Indeed, putting employees at the centre of improving the working environment is a positive step in itself. It builds trust between employees, managers and leaders and creates a workplace where concerns can be raised before they get out of hand.

High-quality research has shown that by empowering employees in deciding on workplace interventions, both social support and job satisfaction increases.

Lead by example

When it comes to stress at work leaders must lead. They are one of the most important factors in creating a healthy workplace as they have the power to directly influence behaviours and the work environment throughout the company. Leaders also have access to budgets and resources that can be used to effectively improve the workplace for their employees.

Leaders aren’t necessarily all born with the skills needed to promote a psychologically safe workplace, but these skills can be learned. One of the expectations of adequate leadership should be to improve their competencies in creating a good working environment. Whether that’s saying “enough” when it comes to the “doing more with less” mantra, organising work so that employees can enjoy a suitable work/life balance or ensuring that line managers’ skills have been developed sufficiently so that they are not a potential source of stress for the teams they manage.

So, what does a manager in a healthy psychosocial workplace look like?

They play a vital role in identifying and addressing stress in their teams and they are “gate keepers”; they can limit their team’s exposure to sources of stress.

They need to be open to dialogue and critique and make sure things do actually change, chiefly by removing barriers and role-modelling the new ways of working.

Perhaps courage and the willingness to challenge upwards are undervalued skills when it comes to selecting managers.

Creating sustainable change

While high employee well-being has been shown to be related to higher performance, many companies and their leaders tend towards characterising the issue as a trade-off between performance and well-being: “You have to suffer to succeed.”

Now, the “holy grail” for progressive companies is sustainable levels of employee performance and well-being.

But what are the practical steps to achieving that?

As discussed above a key element is employee involvement in designing new ways of working. In addition, however, other steps may be necessary and useful. There is art and science in ensuring that any recommendations will fit with an organisation’s people, culture and existing procedures.

While high employee well-being has been shown to be related to higher performance, many companies and their leaders tend towards characterising the issue as a trade-off between performance and well-being: “You have to suffer to succeed.”

For example, to improve the evidence base for the approach, those leading or consulting on workplace well-being should look at the empirical evidence in scientific literature, examine the data and evidence from the organisation, i.e. staff surveys, draw on their professional experience and judgement and, it goes without saying, explore the thoughts and beliefs of those affected, e.g. employees.

The next step is to use widely available risk assessments to understand the areas of concern, their context and who is at risk.

Leaders also need to be committed and ready for change. Here, it can be useful to bring them together to work through the issues involved using a change workshop, with regular check-ins.

Communication around the changes being made is also vital for recruiting people for intervention groups, in publicising the ongoing efforts, and communicating leader support for changes. Communications can also play back the stories and outcome of the work effectively to further cement organisational culture changes.

Finally, evaluation will provide the evidence needed to show sustainability of the interventions taken. One of the best ways of doing this is to gather employee perceptions of how the intervention changed their working life. The questions should focus on what employees believed caused the improvement. Focusing on the perception of the cause of the improvement highlights the key information that can be used in the future to continue improving the health of the organisation.

Thank you to the Organisational Psychology Department at Birkbeck, University of London for drawing my attention to much of the material used in this article.

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