Understanding and identifying workplace stress

Stress Awareness Month has been held every April, since 1992.  The aim of this month is to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic.   Despite this running for 20 years there appears to be a long way to go.  This is borne out by the Mental Health Foundation who stated in a survey last year that 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point during the previous year, they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Further in-depth research carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (2018) concluded that work-related stress, depression or anxiety continues to represent a significant ill health condition in the workforce. These pieces of research indicate that organisations can improve employee wellbeing by identifying factors which will both increase and reduce employee stress and improve and decrease overall performance. 

For business owners and leaders, recognising stress and being aware of the signs that someone is struggling are important first steps. 

It is difficult to find solid medical definition of stress.  Healthcare professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them, and by its nature it is hard to measure. However, the issues that occur when an individual or a team is stressed are similar, with the results being increased absenteeism levels, friction between colleagues and a lowering of productivity and work quality. 

A clear illustration of stress describes a loaded bridge.  If you load a bridge with too much weight and leave it there for long enough, the bridge will eventually collapse.  You will see and hear the warning signs before this happens as the bridge will buckle, bow, creak and groan.  Similar principles can be applied to your team colleagues or employees if they are constantly overloaded with work, excessive demands, and challenges. The early warning signs may be subtle at first such as dips in productivity, mood swings, or weight changes.  If the cause of stress remains in place the person will start to creak and groan more loudly and will ultimately collapse with mental or physical health problems.

When we are stressed, our body thinks we are under attack so it will switch into a ‘fight or flight’ mode.  This mode comes about from a complex mix of hormones and chemical being released into the body to prepare it for physical actions – fight or flight, or often one then the other.  These increased hormones and chemicals cause several reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.  If you are aware of colleagues who are operating at this level of anxiety, you may find they are more excitable, apprehensive and/or irritable.  Their memory may be affected, their judgment and the ability to make logical decisions impaired, and their ability to concentrate lessened.  All these reactions affect their ability to interact with colleagues and work-load effectively, which in turn negatively affects their resilience. 

These changes will not be just a ‘bad day’.  People will display these behaviours over a period of time, so if you are looking at your organisation and you see a high staff turnover, increasing rates of absenteeism or sickness, lowering productivity and efficiency and employees who are regularly working long hours or not taking their full holiday entitlement, it is very likely your workforce is stressed.

Employers often sit back at this point and look at their benefits schemes, health and welfare policies and start offering colleagues benefits such as lunchtime yoga courses and fresh fruit.  All these activities are of course, positive and we are certainly not condemning them, but at Ei World, we believe there are changes you can make which will have a longer-term and more beneficial effect. 

Start your journey to becoming a better leader by taking stress seriously.  For example, an awful lot of sectors and individual companies have an established history of expecting long hours from their employees.  Such expectations are proven to not benefit the company, through all the reasons outlined previously.  Going above and beyond should not be expected as the ‘norm’. 

As a leader one of the key things you can do is to lead by example. 

If you are a leader who is constantly in the office, always available via the phone or email or who does not take all their holidays or breaks, then what example are you setting?  You must incorporate the practices you are asking your employees to do in your own life. 

You must learn to define and manage your own stress triggers. By exploring ways to manage the external pressures you encounter better and developing your emotional resilience so you are better at coping with tough situations when they do happen, you will become a better and more aware leader.

Understanding and developing your own and your team’s emotional intelligence will help you develop resilience, embrace change, become more agile in your ways of working and increase your ability to communicate effectively.  You will gain tools which will help you and your team push productivity upwards, increase communication levels, and lower those all-important stress levels. 

If you would like to explore our approach in teaching team and individual emotional intelligence in more detail, contact us on +44 (0)203-5070-270, visit our website and sign up for our regular newsletter.

Ei World is a company recognised for its pioneering work in the application of emotional resilience and emotional intelligence; one of the first companies entirely focused on applying emotion-based research to talent management, leadership development, team effectiveness and CEO coaching.

Link to research:  http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf

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