SMEs should look to occupational health to eliminate stress at work

Stress in the workplace
Stress in the workplace

For SMEs, the role of occupational health is often perceived to be an expensive luxury that only larger businesses can afford. However, with a total of 9.9 million working days lost due to stress in 2014/5 (Health and Safety Executive), and the major impact long-term absence can have on small businesses, operating a 'fire-fighting' approach to stress management is no longer acceptable.

SMEs must embrace a more proactive approach if they wish to eliminate stress from their organisation, ensuring their business is not left with the financial burden of paying statutory sick pay, or worrying about the effects of increased demand on a smaller team.

Ahead of National Stress Awareness Day (4 November), Dr Philip McCrea, MD of BHSF Occupational Health, is urging small businesses to be more positive in their attitude to occupational health and the management of stress. Here he has compiled his top three reasons why a commitment to occupational health can help eradicate stress in the workplace, and improve the wellbeing of employees:

Identify risk factors

The role of an occupational health practitioner includes ensuring preventative measures are in place to reduce the risk of stress, as well as supporting those who are suffering with stress to either remain at work as a productive team member, or successfully return to work.

To prevent stress, small businesses must assess risk factors in a similar way to how health and safety hazards would be evaluated. Occupational health professionals can help SMEs to understand the risks, ensuring that the employer can ensure they are pre-emptive in their approach to the management of stress. Risk factors can include the level of demand placed on an employee and if they are able to cope, or the potential for relationship conflict in the working environment, for example.

Train managers in recognition and intervention Occupational health professionals play an essential role in using specialist knowledge to inform and train line managers, to ensure they recognise the symptoms of stress and understand when and how to intervene. According to the Health and Safety Executive, 'everyone in the organisation has a responsibility for tackling work-related stress', and for smaller businesses this is key. Occupational health can often provide the tools needed and the business as a whole can then ensure a focus on the wellbeing of employees, and that the management of stress remains a priority.

Early detection of stress is essential, and this can make a significant difference to the employee and the business - both of which will be adversely affected if an employee needs to take time off work. For small businesses, the loss of just one employee to stress-related absence can directly impact the business, putting further pressure on other members of the team and affecting productivity.

As a key point of contact with their employees on a day-to-day basis, managers can often be the first to spot symptoms of stress, such as a change in an individual's performance, or a difference in their mood, and therefore, they are well placed to ensure steps are taken early on to identify their stressors and work to eliminate them.

Ensuring active management of any stress-related illness is implemented, can ensure costly absences from work are prevented. The good news is this can sometimes be relatively quick to fix, by making changes to the employee's workload or simply moving them to another team, for example.

Monitor and review effectiveness

An active occupational health professional will be constantly monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the measures in place to reduce the level of stress on employees. This process is essential to ensure that as workplace pressures change over time, the potential stressors are recognised and mitigated.

Occupational health also plays a key role in collecting and analysing health data that can highlight any trends in the wellbeing of staff. If one team in an organisation has a high rate of stress-related illness, it can be possible for the cause to be highlighted and therefore removed, for example.

It is essential for small businesses to understand the crucial role occupational health can have on the wellbeing and productivity of employees. By understanding the many potential causes of stress in the workplace, training employees to understand the signs and symptoms, and monitoring and reviewing the measures in place to reduce stress, SMEs have the opportunity to eliminate stress from their organisation, and therefore, improve the wellbeing of their staff and relieve any pressures stress-related absence may cause.