Wellbeing | Is absence the answer to workplace stress?

Is absence the answer to workplace stress?

By Kay Needle, Early Intervention and Rehabilitation Expert at Generali UK Employee Benefits

Stress, stress everywhere, but not a time to sink…Work-related stress is a huge problem for people and business. But absence from work is not necessarily the answer. In fact, it can make matters much worse, says Alex Freeman, Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant and Owner of Absence Management Solutions, one of our trusted partners, speaking at one of our recent webinars for HR and Line Managers.*

A lot has been achieved over the last decade or so, in terms of increasing public awareness of stress; the contributory factors, also what is healthy stress and what isn’t.

At the same time though, work-related stress shows no sign of abating. It tends to fall within the catch-all term of mental health issues; the latter representing the most common work-limiting ‘condition’ now, with respect to both sickness absence and economic inactivity.

The UK government wants to improve workforce participation and has its own ideas on how to achieve that.

In this article, we draw on our expertise – and that of Alex’s – both of us working in a frontline capacity with HR personnel, to help organisations tackle the issue of work-related stress.

We ask, what are the respective roles of employers, employees, early intervention and rehabilitation? What does a measured approach look like? And what’s the risk of not following such an approach?

To start with, we asked our webinar attendees – made up of HR and Line Managers – a couple of questions as part of a spot poll.

We wanted to know whether they categorise stress and mental health conditions together when reporting on sickness absence. Over half (53%) said they do. But, encouragingly, that means that just under half don’t (to find out why that’s a good thing, read on).

We also asked for thoughts on the typical course of action for the employer to take when an employee says they’re suffering from workplace stress. 46% said they should stay at work and try to resolve the problem together; 15% said they’d encourage the individual to take some holiday leave; and 38% said the employee should be encouraged to take sick leave.

In other words, in just over half of cases, the employee is encouraged to take some form of absence from work. Is this helping, hindering, or even making this worse? Here’s a few take-outs from our discussion.

Kay: Let’s really get back to basics here, what is workplace stress? And what is burnout? How do the two differ?

Alex: Well, for a starter, neither stress nor burnout are classified as medical conditions. It’s really important to make this clear, because we can all cope with a certain level of stress and pressure. If we didn’t have stress and pressure in our lives, we’d probably be too laid back. Nothing would ever get done. So, we need some stress in order to complete tasks; only at work, but also in our personal lives.

Stress can be defined as a psychological or physiological response to tension or pressure. So, work-related stress is a response to demanding situations at work. That could be anything from relationships with peers to workload, or feeling like we don’t have the right training. It very much varies from one person to another.

Burnout is purely an occupational phenomenon. It doesn’t occur in your personal life. It’s defined as a state of emotional exhaustion, leading to detachment from one’s job and a significant reduction in productivity.

So, stress and burnout can seem quite similar, but there are subtle differences. And warning signs for either might be absences, disengagement, exhibiting cynicism etc.

Kay: Despite stress and burnout not being medical conditions, we know there can be a relationship with mental illness. So, what’s the relationship between stress, burnout and diagnosable mental health conditions?

Alex: We can all cope with short term bursts of stress. But we also need the ability to release that. It’s when the stress is constantly felt and isn’t released that there’s evidence it can become anxiety and depression.

That’s why it’s important that we recognise stress in ourselves and in those around us. And consider ways to relieve it, especially if it’s persisting.

Kay: Our spot poll results (see earlier) reveal that, when faced with an individual saying they have work-related stress, the majority of our HR / Line Manager audience would consider that removal from the work environment is the best solution; either via annual leave or sickness absence. But is this helping? Or is there more that could be done at this point to prevent further escalation of the problem?

Alex: Going on sick leave or holiday leave will undoubtedly make the person feel better. There’s no question. They’ve been removed from the stressful situation, so they’re going to feel that the weight’s been removed from their shoulders.

Unfortunately, no amount of leave or, worst case scenario, medication or therapy, is really going to fully address the problem. At some point, the person will need to go back to work. And unless the situation at work that was causing them stress has been addressed, the problem is just going to build up again.

That’s why we say, it might be challenging for employers and employees, but they’re better off being support to stay in work, or keeping absence to the bare minimum.

Kay: You’ve used the metaphor of a stress bucket. Can you explain?

Alex: Yes, we’ve all got a stress bucket inside of us. This fills up over time and that’s normal, but problems occur when it fills up so much that it overflows.

It’s important to ensure you have a valve on that bucket, to get rid of the stress as it builds up. That valve could be anything from talking to your manager and getting things off your chest, to ensuring that you just switch off from work on an evening; go to the gym, go for a walk, watch TV. Any, or all, of these things.

When individuals pick up on the fact that their stress bucket might be getting too full, that’s when they need to be encouraged to step back, consider what’s causing it, and work collaboratively with their line manager to make small changes, and focus on the individual’s strengths.

It’s about managers supporting people to get over what will hopefully be a short term hump in the road, to prevent it becoming a long-term absence.

Kay: Unfortunately, sometimes that conversation with the manager just doesn’t happen. And the first anybody knows that the employee is struggling is when the individual goes off sick and a Fit Note comes in. The Fit Note will simply say ‘stress’. It won’t give us anything we can use to help the individual, by addressing the underlying problem. When a line manager gets a Fit Note, they also feel they shouldn’t bother the individual with work matters; they feel they should give them space. So, what should the line manager do at this point? And how can early intervention and vocational rehabilitation – available via group income protection – help?

Alex: The minute a Fit Note comes in to an employer, stating ‘stress’, that should be a red flag to say we need to speak to this person.

Now, as we’ve discussed, this isn’t a medical situation. But people already feel that their situation is medicalised because the note comes from their GP. It’s not that they’re necessarily avoiding work or shirking, it’s just that someone of authority with medical expertise has told them they need time off.

So, it’s important to approach this collaboratively. A big problem I see is that people don’t engage with their employer during absence. Then they start to feel isolated. So, very early in an absence, if it looks like that absence is going to become prolonged, it’s important to have a conversation and help support that employee to get back to, and stay in, work. That might include exploring available early intervention services and support.

This is where someone like me comes into the picture – as a Vocational Rehabilitation specialist. We would work with all parties to try to smooth that transition back to work; to build the case for it with both the employer and employee, explain how it should be managed, and consider the need for any short-term adjustments to help alleviate whatever was causing the stress in the first place.

We’re trying to prevent an ongoing build-up of stress; effectively a spiral downwards, which might lead to withdrawal from normal life activities and, ultimately, mental illness.

*To access a free recording of the full webinar – which includes a case study to help understand, in practise, how to overcome the challenge of Fit Notes with regard to stress and ensure a sustainable return to work – please email [email protected]

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All information contained herein represents the views and opinions of the author as at the date of writing and is provided for general information only. Nothing herein constitutes or is intended to constitute financial or other form of advice and no individual should rely upon the information provided in making a specific investment decision without first seeking independent professional advice.

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