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Stress and the workplace

In recognition of National Stress Awareness Day, we wanted to share our suggestions around acknowledging and recognising stress and providing support within the workplace. We all face every-day pressures in life, which fluctuate over time; workload, financial concerns, family and health issues, which may have an impact both personally and professionally. In addition, there could be situational or occupational causes of job stress – a good example is call centre environments, particularly  utility companies, financial services or insurance, where employees may be hearing first-hand from customers who are having financial difficulties.  In other environments colleagues or customers may currently be in conflict zones or natural disaster sites across the world, sharing their day to day experiences of difficulties and hardship.

There continues to be a call for workplaces to do more to protect employee mental health. A recent Mental Health Foundation survey estimates that the mental health issues are now costing the UK economy around £118billion a year, and the cost in the workplace is estimated to be in excess of £2,000 per employee per year1. Furthermore, recent CIPD survey findings revealed that 63% of long-term sickness absence is caused by stress and mental illness 2

Workplaces that are open and inclusive around mental health and have invested in awareness and skills training to manage mental health, are better at creating an environment where employees feel safe to talk about the pressures they are feeling and how they change over time.   

The term ‘stress’ means something different for each of us, and at Mental Health at Work we view this as an invitation for a conversation. Having a trusted colleague, manager or MHaW Mental Health Ally® available for a confidential and non-judgemental conversation enables us talk about what is on our mind and can be the starting point for the support that we need. The power of this conversation can be strengthened if this is backed up with signposting for relevant and timely support, including employee assistance programmes, and  reasonable adjustments, if managers are open and prepared for this consideration. If an individual can have this conversation at an early stage, when they feel they are moving away from mental health, then these actions can help an individual return to positive mental health.

What practical solutions can be incorporated at work?

Practical solutions for managing stress at work will be different for each individual. Our mental health is unique, and one size does not fit all.  

Having conversations about mental health, particularly with line managers, can help with managing our wellbeing, performance and overall engagement at work. A structured conversation, which can be built around a wellness action plan (WAP), which asks open questions around how you stay well at work, can help both manager and employee to agree what works for an individual and how this can be accommodated within each role and workplace.   

Having trained experts in listening and signposting, such as the MHaW Allies®, can be very helpful as an alternative resource for individuals who do not want to speak to their line manager, ensuring that everyone in the workplace has someone who they can speak to, whenever and wherever they need to. 

When should I seek professional support for stress? 

Stress is not a diagnosable mental health issue as it is considered a universal human experience. However, when stress is prolonged, it can lead to distress. At Mental Health at Work, we are all about prevention.  We encourage early conversations in the workplace about our mental health: with colleagues, with managers, with Mental Health Allies and sometimes with human resources or occupational health, along with early access to the right signposting.   

If this is not enough to support a movement back to positive mental health, and our stress levels feel prolonged or relentless, we might start to move towards issue or illness. At this point, we should look at seeking professional help. The role of the workplace is not to diagnose or advise, but if it can provide an environment that supports our psychological health and safety, then early action may be all that is needed to keep us well. 

Having an open conversation is a great starting point

As we all know, a conversation is two-way. If you want to raise it with your manager, part of the success of that outcome is how prepared your manager is to receive that conversation. Have they gone through awareness training so that they’ve removed their own personal bias and stigma around mental health? That is important, because you need the person you in conversation with to be able to listen to you.  

Part of the answer to this is going into the conversation not expecting your manager to solve it for you, because actually that’s not their job, and they’re probably not qualified to do that. Go in with the responsibility that your mental health is your mental health, and no one else is an expert in it. When we are in distress, it might feel like we want someone to offer us an immediate solutions, but very often this is not possible and actually disempowers us from making these decisions ourselves. Ideally,  your manager should listen, ask open questions, and signpost to somewhere better placed to help you find those solutions.  It is important that, ahead of the conversation, you have thought about some suggestions about what might be helpful for you. 

At Mental Health at Work, we believe that what’s right for one person is not going to be right for another. There are a wide variety of reasonable adjustments that can be put in place. Stress reduction is not always about less work. There is a myriad of complexities at an individual level, so, do the thinking beforehand about what could make the difference for you. 

Being informed about the supportive adjustments and resources available in your organisation is key. You might need to have a few options to hand, because this is going to be a conversation. Let’s consider a practical example: maybe you need to do the school pick up on Thursday evenings. In this case, it be helpful if you could start early and leave at 4pm on a Thursday. Your manager might be able to accommodate this request, but it’s essential to have a backup plan. For instance, if this adjustment isn’t feasible, you might suggest working remotely on Thursdays instead. Think as broadly as possible about how the workplace can support you, or what your request to the workplace is. Your mental health is your mental health. No one else is an expert in it. 

Our mental health at work is critical. It is important that we recognise in ourselves and in others when we might be moving away from it. The earlier that you can act, the more likely that you’re going to be able to have some preventative or protective action that enables you to move back to positive mental health. Don’t delay it. The earlier you can have the conversation, the better. 

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