Future of Work  Insights

Dealing with the realities of work-related stress

6 minute read time

Experiencing some level of stress isn’t always a bad thing – but how you can you stop stress levels moving from motivational to problematic?

Most people will have experienced periods of work-related stress. Whether it’s the pressure to meet a deadline, or being tasked with tackling a business problem, some level of stress is part and parcel of fulfilling a role.

But excess stress can be harmful both to employees and a business as a whole. So how can firms work to minimise its impact and ensure a happy, productive workforce?

Causes of stress

The roots of workplace stress are many. According to psychologist and author Dr Sharie Coombes, contributing factors can include “lack of direct control over our workload, difficult peer relationships, staff shortages or the conflicting demands of home and work”.

Edwina Redhead, senior HR business partner at NatWest Mentor, adds: “Stress becomes harmful when we don’t feel we have the resources to deal with everyday pressures. It can affect performance at work and lead to ill-health or long-term absence, which will affect both the business and the individual.”

Preventing stress

One way of ensuring stress doesn’t become endemic within a workplace is encouraging a culture of openness. Pressure at work can arise when employees don’t have a clear sense of what is expected, or the time to carry out a task effectively.

The key here is clarity – both when assigning work and ensuring that employees feel able to ask for additional information and support. “Making sure that what we’re trying to achieve is clear, and that employees have the support and resources available to do that work, is the best way to set them up for success,” says Redhead.

The right policies

Part of the culture of openness means staff should feel safe and supported when communicating their needs, so businesses need to consider implementing effective stress and well-being policies so employees are confident they will be heard.

“It’s about creating a culture where people feel they can talk openly and they’re not going to be judged or perceived as failing and unable to cope,” explains Redhead.

“Having those policies in place, that mechanism, is really essential, and without this support there’s a danger that people will struggle.”

Spotting the signs

Many businesses also find it helpful to appoint a well-being champion to provide a clear first point of contact for people’s concerns. “Nominating someone people can go to if they need advice can be extremely effective,” says Redhead.

“It’s also important to ensure that line managers are trained to spot warning signs. This is increasingly important as many businesses are moving to a remote-working model and it can be hard for line managers to pick up when someone is struggling.”

These well-being champions should be schooled to look out for warning signs that employees might not be coping, says Coombes.

“Some of the outward signs of being excessively stressed include being withdrawn and quiet, excess perfectionism over their work, missing deadlines or being visibly upset. Excessive stress can also present as anger or aggression,” she says.

Additional pressure

It goes without saying that the pandemic and its impact on businesses of all sizes has been an additional cause of stress. With many more people working remotely for the first time, employees and employers alike have reported feeling isolated or have suffered additional stress due to changes in working practices.

“Some of the outward signs of being excessively stressed include being withdrawn and quiet, excess perfectionism over their work, missing deadlines or being visibly upset. Excessive stress can also present as anger or aggression”

Dr Sharie Coombes, psychologist

“We’ve also seen so many people getting ‘Zoom fatigue’, having lots of meetings but not really feeling they’re having real connection,” says Redhead, who adds that reduced job security and uncertainty around the future have also led to anxiety.

As individuals, it’s important to find ways to cope with the current pressures, even if the usual outlets – such as gyms and golf courses – aren’t currently available. Taking regular exercise, eating well and interacting with others online or on the phone can be a helpful start.

The onus on employers is to help support and advise employees, provide information and training where relevant and to encourage healthy practices, such as clearly dividing work and free time when working from home.

A holistic approach

Not all pressures stem directly from the workplace, so it’s important for staff to look after themselves both mentally and physically in all areas of their lives.

“Many businesses are looking at their well-being strategy and really thinking about how to promote mental health, encourage employees to eat as well as they can and be as healthy as they can, which helps with the ability to cope with everyday pressures,” says Redhead.

And the benefits are clear. “If people feel valued and supported, they tend to be more resilient, creative and engaged,” says Coombes. “Happy staff work harder, are more invested in an organisation and tend to be more productive.”

The business owner’s perspective

Jennifer Bailey started her Manchester-based shoe firm Calla in 2016.

“As CEO of a fairly young business, I was hoping for great things for 2020,” she says. “I’d just taken on three new employees, so was managing a staff of four.”

When the pandemic hit, Bailey had to furlough staff, and has since had to make one redundant. At the same time, the business has been contending with a shift in customer appetites. “We manufacture and sell fashionable shoes for bunion sufferers, but it seemed in 2020 fewer people were investing in fashion,” she explains.

“I had high hopes for December 2020, so when things shut down again, I was very stressed, especially with two young children to care for at home, too. And when Brexit came into effect in January 2021, I had to stop selling to Europe – which accounted for about 10% of our business.”

Bailey says she is usually full of energy, but found herself feeling exhausted by the pressures of the past year. “I normally do sport and martial arts and socialise with friends in order to keep on top of stress, but these things were also removed by the pandemic. I didn’t realise those were my coping mechanisms until they were taken away.”

But as progress in the fight against coronavirus continues to be made, Bailey says she has benefited from keeping her eyes on the horizon. “Recently, I’ve started to plan things for my friends and family – to ensure we all have things to look forward to. And I’m looking forward to doing sport again to manage future stress, which has helped me to feel more positive.

“Now I’m seeking investment and hoping to bring staff back in the coming months. I’m more positive about the future, and as the world wakes up, people are starting to invest in footwear again.”

By Gillian Harvey