Wellbeing | How HR can support staff during Stress Awareness Month & beyond

How HR can support staff during Stress Awareness Month & beyond

April is Stress Awareness Month and whether working from home or amongst colleagues in the workplace, stress is a difficult, ever-present reality in today’s society, impacting us all in one way or another.

Defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as a harmful reaction that people have, as a result of undue pressures and demands placed upon them at work, workplace stress can also manifest itself due to external stresses and pressures. By its very nature therefore, the causes of an employee’s stress can be difficult to identify.

The consequences for an employer, if an employee suffering from stress is not managed in good time, is that they may see a decrease in performance, an increase in absence from work and potentially a higher staff turnover and even legal claims.

Around 17.1 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2022/23. But despite the significant impact this issue can have on businesses, many employers still do not fully understand their responsibilities to employees when it comes to workplace stress. Every employer in the UK is responsible for trying to alleviate stressful situations in the workplace and employees can seek legal recourse if they feel marginalised, harassed or develop stress-related illnesses at work.

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WorkNest, the employment law and HR specialists who support 40,000 organisations across the UK, handled an average of 3,000 sickness absence related enquiries every month in the past year. 

In line with the HSE’s statistics, it calculates that around half of these cases are specific to employees suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. 

A particular area of concern for employers is how much contact to maintain with an employee who is off with work-related stress.

Below, WorkNest experts explain how to manage an employee who is off for work-related stress and urges employers to prioritise mental health in the workplace…

Keeping in touch

Whilst there is no law to prevent an employer contacting an employee who is off work due to stress, employers are understandably apprehensive about exacerbating what can already be a sensitive situation. Furthermore, there is legislation which can be relevant when managing an employee who is absent because of stress, such as the Equality Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act.

For employers who find themselves in such potentially challenging scenarios, Lesley Rennie, Employment Solicitor at WorkNest, has the following advice to enable businesses to support their employees, whilst meeting their legal duties:

  1. Ensure policies and procedures on managing sick leave are up-to-date and are communicated to all employees

  2. Maintain a reasonable amount of regular contact with the absent employee to demonstrate concern and gather updates on their health status

  3. Strike the right balance of communication and review this regularly in partnership with the employee

  4. Request medical documentation from the employee to verify extended sickness absence and better understand their situation

  5. Conduct a return-to-work interview to discuss the reasons behind the absence and offer support if needed

  6. Consider workplace adjustments to facilitate a smooth transition back to work such as shorter hours or flexible working

Prevention is better than cure

With 17.1 million working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2022/23, the experts at WorkNest are urging employers to emphasise wellbeing in the workplace to help prevent their employees from being signed off for stress in the first place.

Susan Doran, Health and Safety Consultant at WorkNest, says: “We really need a shift in mindset to focus on a broader sense of health in the workplace, not just occupational diseases and safety. We would encourage employers to apply the same urgency to mental health in the workplace as they do to accident reduction. 

“Health and safety legislation has traditionally emphasised an employer’s obligations in regard to safety but we have seen a notable shift towards protecting overall health with the Health and Safety Executive spotlighting mental ill-health in its 10 year strategy. We may therefore see a clamp down on employers who neglect how their workplace environment is contributing to poor mental health.”

Doran continues: “Clearly employers should be cognisant of their legal duty to assess the risk of work-related stress. It is also important however, that they recognise the wider business benefits of creating initiatives and processes centred around individual wellbeing such as increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and a lower staff turnover. Beyond complying with regulations, fostering a mental healthy workplace is not just a legal obligation but a moral imperative.”

Steps to better manage stress in the workplace

The key to dealing with stress is tackling the problem early, as this may reduce the impact on the employee. Susan advises employers to take the following actions to better manage stress in the workplace and ready themselves for the HSE’s renewed focus on mental health.

Policy

Implement a comprehensive stress management policy which fosters a collective commitment to identifying, addressing and managing stress in the organisation.

Training

Provide training so that managers are able to identify signs of stress in the workplace and equip them with the tools to address stress at the earliest opportunity.

Data

Collect data on stress-related sick-leave to better understand what factors may be contributing to stress.

Empower managers

Utilise the HSE’ Talking Toolkits designed to help line managers have simple, practical conversations with employees about stress. These are particularly useful for smaller organisations to gather the sort of data that larger organisations may obtain through surveys.

Risk assessments

In instances where an employee has communicated their struggle with stress, it’s imperative for the employer to conduct a risk assessment and promptly implement relevant control measures to provide support. There are various ways stress can be managed, but the HSE Management Standards document outlines 6 key stressors and gives examples of how these stressors can be addressed.

Six in ten parents feel stress and anxiety from worrying about their children

Elsewhere, research from MetLife UK highlights the significant strain that stress is having on working parents.

While it’s only natural to feel worried about your children, six in ten (61%) parents say the worry they have for their children causes them to feel stressed and anxious.

And this is having a significant impact on their sleep, with almost two in five (39%) suffering sleepless nights.

Almost a third (32%) admit they’re mentally and physically exhausted, and one in five (20%) say their worries for their child(ren) are making them depressed.

Feeling stressed and anxious is causing arguments within the household, admitted 18% of parents.

The research, which explores what it is like to be a parent, the challenges, the milestones, and the financial protection they have to support them, found that one of the biggest worries they have is their children’s mental health (89%). This was closely followed by the fear that they won’t be able to get a doctor’s appointment or help should they need it (87%).

Despite the strain that worrying is having on parents, one in ten (9%) admit they don’t or wouldn’t turn to anyone for support.

MetLife’s research also found that worrying about children has a different effect on women compared to men.

Women are more likely to be directly impacted because of their worries, resulting in feeling stressed (64%), losing sleep (41%), and being mentally or physically exhausted (32%).

Men, however are more likely to let the worry of their children impact their relationships (15%), their work (20%), or relationships with family and friends (17%).

To support parents and help relieve some of the stresses they have, MetLife UK provides ChildShield - the first product of its kind that supports families should their child(ren) have an accident or become seriously ill. It provides financial protection should parents need it. This includes situations such as having to take time off work to care for their child(ren) – removing some of the stress and worry parents face when their child is ill or has an accident.

Rich Horner, Head of Individual Protection at MetLife UK, comments: “It’s only natural that as a parent we worry about our children – from health issues to potential accidents, to how they’re getting on at school and university. But worrying can have lasting effects on families, and stress can manifest in a number of different ways, so where we can, we must support parents to help relieve some of the stress they’re facing.

“The reality is that despite best efforts, accidents and illnesses do happen. And when children suffer something serious, we want parents to focus on being there in the moment your child needs you – not worrying about the financial impact.

“ChildShield aims to provide peace of mind, not just for the big moments, but the everyday ones too. To also offer greater support to help alleviate some of the stress that comes with being a parent, ChildShield includes a Wellbeing Support Centre Hub and a virtual GP service (GP24) to offer support 365 days a year, 24/7. Parents shouldn’t have to worry that they can’t get a GP appointment or prescription when it’s needed, so we wanted to address real concerns through a simple, affordable and practical product.”



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