What troubles the minds of your employees can trouble your organisation as a whole
Employees are the most important asset of any modern company. Their input, effort and hard work keeps processes running smoothly and gives your company its competitive edge. As such, HR executives must keep track of factors that affect employee performance, wellbeing and productivity.
One key employee welfare consideration is that of workplace stress. A certain degree of stress is natural, but when an individual deals with anxiety for too long, it can impact their health, performance and engagement levels. Evidence suggests the state of workplace stress is actually worsening, with one in six employees stating they feel far more stressed now than they did a year ago, with one in eight having to go on medication to cope. This comes at a productivity cost, with 11.7 million working days being lost per year.
To keep your company performing successfully, performance management professionals need to be mindful of the matter of workplace stress, managers must be able to detect warning signs of anxiety and HR should know how to remedy the situation.
What is workplace stress?
Workplace stress is the physical and emotional response suffered by employees as a result of job demands. Often, the employee will feel completely unable to fulfil their role adequately, and the effort of trying to creates an internal conflict that impacts their health.
Stress can affect anyone at any level of a business. According to a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) study spanning the years of 2014 and 2015, 440,000 people in the UK reported work-related stress and 40% of all work-related illness was due to anxiety. This raised to a total of 488,000 cases and 45% between 2015 and 2016. On top of this, 11.7 million workdays are lost each year as a result of stress, costing the UK economy nearly £6.5 billion.
These statistics are alarming, and clearly action needs to be taken, particularly given the fact that neuroscientists believe anxiety to be contagious. The phenomenon is known as the stress contagion effect. Our mirror neurones reflect the stress of others, meaning the condition can spread like a virus.
What causes workplace stress?
Stress can occur for a number of reasons, some of which are a lack of managerial support, work-related harassment, short staffing and work pressures. Some people may not be able to cope with the workload or goals given to them. When employees have an unclear idea as to their job expectations, if their work is never appreciated or rewarded and if their productivity demands are too high, it is likely they will suffer stress as a result. Anxiety can also occur when an employee feels a lack of control over their own duties.
Generally speaking, stress is unavoidable if little or no attention is paid to employee-manager relationships, job design and performance management. The impact of this stress has far-reaching implications.
How does stress affect your employees?
Some people insist they perform better with an element of stress, but studies have shown that this is not the case. Stress can prompt a huge number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, sleep problems, headaches and hypertension. According to a report from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools, stress can lead to fatal conditions that ultimately kill approximately 120,000 people per year. Stress can also affect performance in terms of a loss of motivation, concentration and memory. It can also cause poor decision-making. Behaviorally, you might notice increased irritability and social isolation.
Notably, stress has a huge impact on employee engagement. Of those employees who report high stress, 51% of them are disengaged from work, with only 9% claiming to be engaged. Conversely, of those who report low stress, 57% are highly engaged and only 8% are disengaged.
How does stress impact your organisation?
When it comes to how individual employee stress impacts your organisation as a whole, you should consider employee retention. According to one study, 44% of UK workers know someone who has given up work due to stress. Employees who feel overwhelmed and overworked are likely to burn out and leave their current position, meaning your company has to deal with all the financial and productivity byproducts involved with high turnover.
Absenteeism is a clear downside of workplace stress, as those suffering from stress are more likely to have increased absence due to sickness; stress was recently listed as the top reason for long-term sick leave. In addition to this, stress has been linked to lower overall performance and productivity, as well as decreased motivation and morale.
How can you spot a stressed employee?
In a number of countries, employers have a legal responsibility to recognise and address stress in the workplace. If you are concerned stress is causing issues in your organisation, keep an eye out for the following warning signs:
- The employee is taking more time off work than usual
- They are irritable
- They have reduced productivity
- Their concentration is impaired
- They are overly sensitive
- They are aggressive
- They stop taking lunch breaks, or regularly scheduled hourly breaks
- They appear withdrawn from their workplace friendships
What can your performance management system do about stress?
Communication is essential when it comes to dealing with workplace stress. Incorporate regular one-on-one performance discussions into your performance management process. This will open up lines of honest communication, meaning your employees are likely to feel more comfortable discussing any pressing stressors or concerns. This is a great starting point to relieving large sources of stress. During these one-on-ones, managers should touch on the employee’s strengths and how they can be better leveraged in their role. This will increase their confidence levels.
Put employees in the driving seat when it comes to setting their own SMART goals and performance objectives. Employees know what they are capable of and are therefore more able to set themselves realistic goals. Still, you can allow this goal-setting process to be a collaborative effort. Managers can have a say in whether or not the goals are appropriate, but in general, it is a great idea to give employees an element of freedom.
Discuss flexible working in appropriate situations. If a 9-5 working schedule isn’t ideal for the employee in question, consider telecommuting or flexi-time. This might do wonders when it comes to work-life balance and relieving the demands placed on them.
Importantly, HR should have a clear policy on breaks. Employees should have the freedom to escape their computers for ten minutes, without worrying about the ramifications. This time will allow them to take a step back and reflect on their work, while stretching their legs and clearing their minds. Managers should lead by example and take breaks themselves, which will help to demonstrate that short, regular breaks are part of your company culture.