By Dawn Hemmings

Stress is a major cause of sickness absence in the workplace and costs over £5 billion a year in Great Britain.  So, what is stress?  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them’.

Now cast your mind back to the late 1990’s, can you remember talking about stress or companies even mentioning stress?  Probably not. In this article I want to tell you of my struggle on how I tried to get stress recognised in the workplace in 1990’s and what companies can do today to help their employees stay in work.

Back in 1998 I worked as the Health and Safety Office for Egg.com, the first internet bank.  The bank was a call centre with the large majority of staff dealing with customers over the phone, some of which could become very irate. Cases of stress were rising and there was a growing need to raise the awareness of stress in the work place and how to deal with it. 

As I was the Health and Safety Officer I was asked to look at how we could raise the awareness of stress in the work place but without causing panic.  I conducted a lot of research on stress so I fully understood what it was and how we could help people in the workplace.  After many months work I had drafted a policy and a training package, of which I was very pleased with.  It covered a wide range of topics from the definition of stress to signs and symptoms to copying strategies for employees.  The training reflected the policy and had a practical exercise called the Stress Tree Analyser.

The next step was to get the policy and the training signed off my management.  However, I did not anticipate the reaction I got from them with regards to the title of the policy – Stress Awareness.  Management didn’t like the title and said that if we called it Stress awareness then we would be opening a can of worms and everyone would be going off with stress, they were very nervous. There was a lot of discussion to find an alternative title and many titles were suggested but in the end, I managed to win them over by stating that if we did not call the policy Stress Awareness then it would not have the impact it needed. They finally agreed and we left the title as it was.  I then rolled out the policy and training to all employees within Egg.com

Even though Egg.com implemented this policy they were ahead of their time back in 1998 as not many companies followed suit.  Which is a shame as there have been cases in the press for stress – Young v The Post Office 2002 which was due to lack of training on a new job and Dickins v O2 Ltd 2008, which was due to excessive hours worked and demanding workload. Two cases that if the employer had listened to the employee could have been avoided.

Role forward 20 years to today and what has changed with regards to stress? Are companies still having the same battles I had back in 1998 or are we talking more about mental illnesses or is it still a taboo subject?  Just by reviewing the two case studies above there is still a lot companies can do to address and help employees. It is recognised that early intervention and effective management can have a positive effect on the following:

Employees                                         Company

General Health                                      Performance/productivity

Self-esteem                                             Turnover/Intention to leave

Motivation                                             Attraction and recruitment

Confidence                                             Customer satisfaction

Engagement                                          Organisational image and reputation 

From my experience, I have worked for companies that have implemented Mental Wellbeing Polices and have done everything they can to raise the awareness, through to other companies that still want to keep their heads in the sand and not to anything due to fear of reprisal.   There is also a lack of understanding within companies as to what legislative framework they have a duty of care under to ensure measures to protect the health, safety and welfare of its employees.   This involves the identification and acknowledgement of mental health problems and appropriate support to employees experiencing mental health issues.  This will involve where appropriate, a suitable risk assessment to understand issues as well as actions to reduce the risks that are reasonably practicable.

Today there is so much more that companies can offer their employees that go above and beyond just conducting a risk assessment.  There are now courses for employees to become Mental Health First Aiders which provides other employees people to talk to about their issues.  Companies can implement Health and Wellbeing programmes which could include promoting exercise and nutritional advice, as well as lifestyle talks.  A lot of companies now offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) which is an overarching preventative programme of information, advice and services available to help deal with events and issues in everyday work and personal life.

So, what should companies take from this article?  Well you need to recognise that stress is just one mental illness that employees may suffer from there are many more, stress could be a start of a more serious illness.  The society we now work in is now more pressurised and high demanding than ever before, therefore companies need to be more open to listen and help with issues.  Implementing a Mental Wellbeing policy would show employees that you care about their wellbeing and you would lead the way for other companies to do the same.  Remember without fit and health employees our business cannot operate and thrive – act now before it’s too late.

*Please note, the views expressed by the original article author are theirs alone and do not necessarily represent those of Washingtondowling Associates Ltd or The SHE Show and therefore we take no responsibility for the content or accuracy of this post.