Workplace stress - on the up…

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20 October 2011

This month the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development published the results of its annual Absence Management Survey. The survey found that, for the first time, stress is now the most common cause of long term sick leave for employees.

Of the 592 employers surveyed, 39% reported an increase in stress-related absence – a huge rise from last year and thought to be related to the heightened pressure of the prolonged economic downturn.

Given the high cost to businesses caused by staff absences, Benjamin Loxton, a Senior Associate in the employment team at Burges Salmon LLP, sets out below some practical steps to help you manage stress in the workplace.

Spotting the early signs of stress

It can be difficult to identify when an employee is suffering from stress as the employee may not know themselves or may be uncomfortable talking about their condition.  However, by spotting the early signs of stress you have an opportunity to tackle the issue sooner rather than later and prevent more serious repercussions – it may also, in extreme cases, prevent a personal injury claim from arising.

Early signs of stress include:

Work performance. Declining or inconsistent performance, loss of motivation, lapses in memory, uncharacteristic indecision, excessive time in the office and a lack of holiday usage are all early warning signs and could indicate that an employee is struggling.

Withdrawal. Alternatively, at the other end of the spectrum, does the employee arrive into work late, take extended lunches and then leave early? This type of behaviour, coupled with increased short-term absenteeism, a resigned attitude or reduced social contact could, in a normally conscientious employee, be a warning sign of a bigger problem.

Behavioural changes and mood swings. Though we all have our ups and downs, erratic behaviour such as crying, undue sensitivity, overreacting to problems and sulking should set alarm bells ringing.  Similarly, temper outbursts, irritability, and aggressive behaviour could also signal something is wrong.

Managing stressed employees in the workplace

If you do identify an employee you think may be suffering from stress, the first, second and third rules for dealing with stress at work are communication, communication, communication.  Line managers rarely relish raising these concerns with an employee, and the employee may be resistant to acknowledging that they have a problem.  However, facing up to the problem sooner rather than later and talking to the employee will make it much easier to resolve any issues.

Once the problem has been identified and acknowledged, you can take positive steps to address any factors causing or contributing to the employee's stress.  

Review the employee's current workload. How achievable are the demands in relation to the employee's agreed hours of work? Can work be redistributed or the priority of individual tasks reconsidered?

Offer the employee more support. Would help with organisation or better equipment lighten the load? Would the employee benefit from more  administrative support?  Does the employee need some time off?

Consider re-organisation of work patterns. What are the individual’s commitments outside of work? Could offering the employee more flexible working hours help the situation?  These arrangements don't need to be permanent.

Managing stress related absences

Unfortunately, regardless of how much support an employer provides, there will be times when employees find they can't cope.  Indeed, the stress may have nothing to do with work and may arise from problems in an employee's home or personal life.  

So, if you are faced with a situation where an employee is signed off sick due to stress, it is important that you retain control:

Keep in contact. This enables you to plan ahead but it is important to strike a balance. The appropriate amount of contact will depend on the length of absence and the role the employee holds.  Remember, contact that is considered too intrusive could be construed as harassment. One approach is to agree a regular time for the communication to take place.

Obtain medical evidence. Without proper medical evidence you will not be able to make informed decisions about how to deal with the employee's absence.  In particular you will want to consider whether the employee's stress amounts to a disability as this will affect how you proceed. You may want to ask for information from the employee's GP but it is often more helpful to send the employee to an occupational health specialist instructed by the business.  In either case, think about the questions you want the medical report to address and set them out clearly in any letter of instruction to the doctor.  You should also ensure that any report produced is shared and discussed with the employee.

Take formal action. Should you consider dismissing an employee on capability grounds, ensure that the procedure you follow adheres to your own policies and the provisions of the ACAS Code of Practice on Discipline and Grievance Procedures to avoid claims of unfair dismissal and/or disability discrimination.

Tackling stress at work is not an exact science, but a pro-active, well-informed and flexible approach should reduce stress-related absence and help your business avoid becoming a statistic!

This article was first published in HR Review on 19th October 2011.

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