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How to Manage Stress in the Workplace

You've started a company and now have some employees, well done! But now you need to make sure that your employees are working to the best of their abilities.

In order to get to grips with the problem, you first have to understand how big the problem is. According to HSE, in the period of 2015-16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days off. As you can see from this, it's a big problem, but with better management it can be minimised.

What Causes Stress in the Workplace?

Stress can be caused by a whole host of problems. But the thing to remember is that it's a natural reaction to situations that are harmful (flight or fight reaction) and can often help get us out of harm's way; the problem occurs when stress is triggered by things which don't actually cause harm.

So what things in the workplace can cause it? The main things to look out for are heavy workloads, high levels of responsibility and tight deadlines. But there are many other factors you may want to look out for, such as:

  1. Role Ambiguity - Not having a clearly defined role can lead to employees not knowing what's expected from them.
  2. Role Conflict - This is where your role means you have to do several different things at once. Such as having two managers ask you to complete two different tasks in the same short time frame. It cannot be accomplished.
  3. Role Overload - Having a varied amount of work to complete can be stimulating, but too much can cause overload.
  4. Unstimulating Work - Being asked to complete the same task over and over, day in and day out can be very, very boring. This can lead to employees feeling as though they're not achieving anything in the workplace.
  5. Interpersonal Problems - Being around other people who you may not get on well with can lead to friction. This, in turn, can lead to stress and anxiety.
  6. Organisational Change - Organisational restructuring is hard on everyone, but with that comes a change in what can be expected from your employees. New targets to hit and changes in how they're working can lead to stress.
  7. Structure - How you handle stressful situations can have a bearing on how your employees feel about it. If you are stressed then so will they be. But if you handle it well and have procedures in place to manage it then your employees will feel better about it and feel as though they can approach you about the problems they are experiencing.

Stressed man with head on desk

Recognising the Signs that you have a Stressed Employee

This is the hard part. Stress shows itself differently from person to person. Some people will show common signs, others will show completely different ones that would never have been thought of in a thousand years. So how can you recognise if someone is stressed? Here are some common signs:

  1. Is their work performance the same as usual? Look out for the following:
    • Poor concentration: are they changing between tasks often and not staying with one piece of work?
    • Inconsistent performance: did they used to find things easy that they now struggle with?
    • Uncharacteristic errors: has one of your employees forgotten about an upcoming meeting even though they're usually the most organised person in the office?
    • Indecisiveness: do you have an employee that suddenly can't make up their mind? Suddenly they're unable to decide about simple things - would they rather tea or coffee; a sandwich or a baguette, etc.
    • Inability to deal calmly with everyday situations: are they getting angry because the kettle won't boil quickly enough?
    • Signs of tiredness or anxious behaviour: are they constantly yawning, stretching and just looking miserable?
    • Making complaints: are the littlest of things bothering them? Someone left a pen on their desk and not in the pot, they want to know who and why because it's their desk and no one else's.
    • Irritability: do they seem to anger quickly over little things and not want to make small talk any more?
    • Lapses in memory: have they forgotten to do something or forgotten that something important is happening?
    • Reference to time pressure: are they constantly talking about how they're under pressure and have to get this project done by next week?
    • Resistance to change: are they the one always throwing up barriers when you want to implement something?
    • Lack of holiday planning and taking: are they constantly working to get something done and so never leave the office or plan time away from work?
    • Longer or excessive hours: are the really reluctant to leave the office?
  2. Are they withdrawing?
    • Arriving late: are they consistently late to work?
    • Leaving early: do they always get out of work as soon as they possibly can?
    • Extended lunches: are they taking more than they're allowed to for lunch? Leaving early or coming back late from lunch?
    • Absenteeism or increased sickness absence: have they just not shown up one day? Or for a few days?
    • Passivity or lack of commitment: can you not get an answer out of them or get them to be excited about a project that they'll be doing?
  3. Are they showing signs of aggressive behaviour?
    • Malicious gossip: have you found malicious gossip spreading from them?
    • Criticism of others: are they constantly criticising work that their colleagues are carrying out?
    • Vandalism: have you found property has been destroyed in the office, or photos have been defaced?
    • Shouting: are they constantly raising their voice and getting agitated?
    • Bullying and harassment: do they have an agenda against another employee? Are they constantly taking out their problems on them?
  4. Other signs
    • Increased consumption of alcohol and/or coffee: are they drinking more than they used to in order to get motivated or deal with problems?
    • Increased smoking: are they now taking more smoke breaks than they used to in order to get away from the office?
    • "Comfort eating": do they seem to be eating more junk food whereas they're normally a healthy eater?

All of these are signs that you could have a stressed employee, some employees won't show as many symptoms as others but these are all signs that you should keep an eye out for.

So what should you do if you have a stressed employee?

There are several things that you can do if you feel as though you have a stressed employee.

  1. Talk about it: it can be hard to start the conversation, but a simple How are you? You feeling ok?" shows your employee that you care and are willing to talk about it. It may also get them to open up about what's making them feel stressed.
  2. Do something about it: you might feel like taking a step back and hoping that it all blows over. It won't. You need to be proactive and get to the root of it. Talk to the employee, refer them to an occupational therapist if needed. Make changes to the working environment. You may find that even the smallest things will help.
  3. Seek help: you don't have all the answers, no one does. You may not know how to deal with an employee's grief or problems at home. But you can get advice from someone who can help. Seek help from experts who have an understanding of things such as this. Don't forget that stress can go hand-in-hand with other problems such as depression or anxiety; try speaking to an occupational health specialist, or even referring your employee to them.

Just remember to look out for the signs and be there for your employees if you feel that they aren't coping. There's no harm in asking how they're feeling and you may find it goes a long way. A caring employer not only helps in difficult situations, but can also help with job satisfaction too. Even if you don't think they are stressed, there's no harm in making the conversation and connecting with your employees.

For more information about stress, visit the HSE where they can give guidance and further resources.

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