Prove you trust your people: How to combat rising workplace stress

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22 September 2022
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Partners stressing one of them at the office

This article is from our new series 'One small step for Management: The L&D guide to the giant leap in employee expectations.' We'll publish the rest over the next few weeks, if you don't want wait, you can read them all right now by downloading our brand new eBook. 

Workplace stress is on the rise, with 79% of British organisations having experienced stress-related absences in the past year.1

The World Health Organisation explains that poorly managed chronic workplace stress has three main symptoms: exhaustion; mental distance, or negativity towards your job; and reduced efficacy.2 It leaves people feeling completely physically and emotionally drained, with reduced attention spans, more likely to make mistakes and significantly more likely to leave their company.3

Covid-19 changed many people’s day-to-day work, as well as their attitudes towards it, but stress existed long before the virus. So, what are some things organisations should be doing to proactively support their teams?

 

Not all stress is bad

It’s important to recognise the difference between positive and unhealthy stress. At work, stress can motivate and challenge you, pushing you towards goals and deadlines. When work is too relaxed, productivity can decrease and people can burn out on boredom.4

Unhealthy workplace stress typically occurs when someone experiences unmanageable pressure for too long, such as when their to-do list has more on it than they’re able to complete, with unrealistic deadlines and no space to move anything. Some people will push themselves to their breaking point to complete as much as possible. Others will emotionally detach, feeling that there’s no point in even trying.

 

Keep workloads under control

Managers should be trained to check-in with their team, talk about any issues and support them through it. People should be encouraged to speak freely, and believed when they say there’s no capacity or resources to complete things by the required deadlines, and managers must become an advocate for their team’s wellbeing. If there’s no time, either accept the work can’t be done or something else has to move.

Additionally, one of the main causes of unhealthy stress is a lack of control. Rather than managers simply telling their people what to do next, they should trust their team to have autonomy over their own time. By explaining what tasks need doing, their deadlines and how each one fits with organisational priorities, people can take back control over their days and plan accordingly.

Beyond this, it’s important to understand exactly where workload issues start. Many organisations are experiencing high levels of resignations, creating increased workloads for those left behind.5 The best thing leaders can do is accept there’s reduced capacity until they’ve hired new talent. In the meantime, they should be organising learning programmes to develop employees and help them take on new responsibilities more effectively.

 

Make your remote workers feel trusted

In the office, regardless of how productive you are, you’re seen to be there. One of the common stresses that comes with working remotely is digital presenteeism, or the pressure people put upon themselves to prove they are actually working. With this mindset, it’s easy to start pushing yourself harder, or doing extra hours, to have more to show at the end of the day.

This pressure to be productive is often exacerbated by the actions of organisations. With 16% admitting to frequently using technology to monitor their employees – such as virtual clocking in and out, tracking computer usage, and checking emails or internal communications – it’s no wonder people worry.6

Freedom and flexibility need to come with the implicit two-way trust that employees will work effectively, and that their employer views them as responsible enough to self-manage. Rather than judging employees on their minute-to-minute activity, focus on overall productivity. If deadlines are met and communication channels stay open, managers don’t need to constantly monitor their teams.

When behaviour does slip, act as you would in person: have a conversation about what’s going wrong, work together to find solutions, and in the very worst cases, move to appropriate disciplinary measures. People know they’re paid to do their job, so as long as managers act fairly, and remote employees aren’t suddenly held to higher standards, they’ll know what’s actually expected of them – helping them relax and improve their wellbeing.

 

Encourage a positive work-life balance

Workplace stress doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We can all only bear so much, and challenges in our personal lives affect how resilient we can be at work. Difficult home lives, relationship problems, money worries and personal health are just some of the infinite reasons people feel stressed outside of work. We keep saying that organisations need to view their employees as fully-rounded people, and recognising the tightrope that is work-life balance is crucial.

The UK has begun the world’s largest trial of a four-day working week, with 43% of British employers aiming to adopt it in the future. When asked about the main benefits, 87% said it would improve their employees’ mental health and wellbeing, 76% hoped it would lead to better living standards and 60% said they’d be able to give their employees greater flexibility.7

Another approach is through time off, with 75% of workers agreeing that using their annual leave reduces stress. Despite this, a staggering 40% aren’t using all their entitled leave, and even when they do, 54% say they aren’t able to full disconnect from work.8

In our previous article, we discussed how hard it can be to switch off outside work when laptops and phones make us constantly contactable. When people are on holiday from work, they should be given a total reprieve from calls, emails and messages. It’s much better for employees’ mental health and it’s a pragmatic decision for an organisation, who should be encouraging their staff to come back fully refreshed and back at the top of their game. If they don’t get a break, there’s no benefit to anyone.

 

It's easy to blame the pandemic for the widespread rise in unhealthy workplace stress, but there are far more institutionalised reasons this happens. Everything from a lack of control over their time, to the pressures they put on themselves and an inability to switch off outside work create an atmosphere which makes people stressed.

Organisations should be offering a range of training to improve management skills, limit perfectionism and develop methods to be happier and effective remotely. Most importantly, organisations need realistic expectations of their people and to encourage them to take time off. Without these measures, you’ll see an increasingly struggling and disengaged workforce.

 

For more information about the future of work and employee wellbeing, download the full eBook.

 

1 CIPD (2022) Stress in the workplace

2 World Health Organisation (2019) Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International classification of diseases

3 Asana (2022) 2022 Anatomy of work global index 

4 Psychology Today (2020) Burnout

5 The Open University (2022) Business Barometer 2022

6 Gartner (2022) 6 ways the workplace will change in the next 10 years

7 NatWest (2022) The future of work - a new report into evolving trends

8 Glassdoor (2022) 1 in 2 professionals can't fully unplug on vacation