Why every SME needs to focus on minimising stress at work

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By Sophie van der Singel

Everyone is able to tolerate different levels of stress. For some people, stress acts as motivation and only occurs in fleeting moments, but for others, it can pose a serious risk to their health and happiness and prohibit them from achieving success. This also applies to the workplace so it’s important you look out for signs of stress among your team and manage it well.

The impact of stress at work

Stress can not only have serious detrimental effects on one’s physical and mental health, but it can also create an incredibly unproductive and pessimistic workplace when left unmanaged. Here are several issues which can arise as a result of stressed employees, whether it is a group of individuals or specific employees:

  • Strained working relationships

This can lead to conflict, isolated employees, grievances and a lower standard of customer service if you deal with the public.

  • Poor punctuality and more absence days

Employees dealing with stress will see their health deteriorate in several ways. They could experience physical issues such as muscle pains, headaches, respiratory and immune system issues, and fatigue, inevitably leading to more sick days. In addition, motivation to come to work is also more than likely to see a significant decline.

  • Lower standard of work

Stress can make it more difficult to focus, think creatively and aspire to perform well. More mistakes will be made by employees who struggle to concentrate.

Why should you care about stress?

Although stress is a natural response to pressure, it can prohibit employees from completing work to the best of their ability, which in turn will negatively affect the success and productivity of your organisation. All of the above issues caused by stress can place a significant financial burden on your company as well. Tackling stress should therefore be a priority to you, and not just for the sake of your employees or the wealth of your company, but also in order to avoid grievances leading to employment tribunal hearings.

Do employers have a legal obligation to manage stress?

As an employer or business owner, you are obliged to show your members of staff a ‘reasonable duty of care’, which includes taking steps to reduce or eliminate issues that may affect their wellbeing. Failing to acknowledge stress as part of this duty could result in a claim being made against you. Although stress in itself is not categorised as a disability, the Equality Act states that any condition which causes a ‘substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’ is considered a disability – and long-term stress certainly has detrimental effects on the daily lives of individuals. Failure to make reasonable adjustments that would enable stressed employees to carry out their job properly could lead to them taking legal action against you, as you have breached your duty of care.

How to minimise levels of stress

  1. Monitor workloads and performance

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (the HSE) have shown that high workloads coupled with tight deadlines were found to be the main cause of workplace stress. Ensuring that all of your employees have a reasonable workload and adequate time period to carry out such work should be a main priority for all employers. It’s also important that you frequently assess the standard of work carried out by your staff, especially if you have an inkling that someone on your team is beginning to experience symptoms of stress.

Sometimes you will need to be the one who first notices signs of stress amongst your staff because some employees will not bring the issue forward themselves, either because they do not feel comfortable doing so, or because they haven’t personally identified that they are struggling. Recognising signs of stress such as sloppier work, irritability, dishevelled appearance, withdrawal from social events, is the very first step in working towards a stress-free workplace.

  1. Handle change and conflict effectively

Aside from high workloads, organisational change and conflict were also found to be two main causes of work related stress. Conflict is an obvious reason for high stress levels and is arguably easier to resolve than fear and stress caused by change.

Change is typically a positive move for businesses, whether you are expanding, switching management or offering new services – but it can have negative side effects when your employees are kept in the dark. Staff will rightfully fear the unknown, and it is up to you to eliminate this fear as quickly as possible.

  1. Listen to your staff

Make sure that your staff members know they are supported and aware of whom they can raise personal issues with. If you haven’t already, you should implement a clear procedure within your organisation that allows employees to discuss their issues with a trusted figure, such as an HR representative, to request guidance or adjustments.

It’s unlikely that two employees dealing with stress would require the same type of help as mental illness is a very personal issue and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.