Stress fractures: recognising the signs of workplace stress

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It took a long time for workplace stress to be considered a proper illness or valid reason for being off work, but today it is one of the common causes of long-term sickness leave, including in the manufacturing sector.  Stress can be one of the hardest things for a manager to deal with.  You are unlikely to know when your employee will return to work and you may face weeks of being under-staffed, or paying for temporary additional resource.

At this year’s IOSH Conference, I shared some of my observations and thoughts around stress recognition, management and prevention after working for 25 years in Occupational Health.

Workplace stress – the facts

In the UK, workplace stress is a greater issue than many people consider. HSE data shows that in 2013/14, 39% of all work-related illness cases were attributed to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. That’s 487,000 cases and there were 244,000 new cases reported in 2013/14. That translates into 11.3 million lost work days, an average of 23 days per case. 

Knowing that you could be facing nearly five working weeks without key employees, highlights the importance of identifying the signs of stress and being equipped to address them.

Spotting the signs

Everyone and every case is different, but there are things that you can do to help employees with stress problems. Training is key. Raising awareness of workplace stress amongst line managers and colleagues is one of the first things you should do.  By working on your managers’ ‘soft skills’ you can enable them to deal with stress more effectively and spot the signs earlier and more easily.

Stress can affect anyone and it manifests itself in different ways, but early stress markers can be found in staff members who:

  • Come in early and/or work late
  • Feel the need to work at weekends
  • Take home paperwork, don’t get the chance to do it, then feel guilty
  • Don't take all their holiday entitlement
  • Don’t take their lunch break
  • Suffer from Saturday morning headaches
  • Suffer from Sunday night insomnia

Later markers may be:

  • Unusual response to a situation (irritable, unduly quiet)
  • Blaming others
  • Taking it out on someone else
  • Procrastination
  • Over-reacting (“catastrophization”)

If you see these signs in colleagues, then don’t delay. Quick intervention and support are key. Sit down and have a cup of tea with your colleague and discuss what is happening.  Work maybe a part of their stress, but there will be other factors so make time to understand the whole issue. Doing nothing in the early stages increases the likelihood that you will be left without a staff member, and a sick note or fit note on your desk.

Prevention is better than cure

Approach stress at an organisational and individual level. Employers often focus on job satisfaction and equate that to personal health.  While a strong, positive relationship with management is the main factor in job satisfaction, when it comes to personal health, workload issues are the largest factor, along with the environment people work in. Being valued is all well and good, but it doesn’t matter if there’s too much work and the environment is poor.

Implement a ‘stress questionnaire’ that employees complete. This will pick out at-risk groups of employees, and can also show broader issues with your operations, and importantly, can enable you to make changes.  Awareness workshops can help colleagues identify stress in each other and bring this to the attention of line managers. Adding coping strategies for stressful situations is a last resort for certain jobs that can be very stressful.

Low stress is good for business

Research from the employee engagement tracking company, Best Companies, shows that the companies who have engaged and happier employees have financially out-performed FTSE 100 companies consistently for the last 15 years. While there will always be some workplace stress, by seeing the signs early and having a plan for managing and supporting staff, you not only help colleagues, you will support your bottom line.

Find out more.

If you missed my presentation at the IOSH Conference, a short version of the presentation is available on Slideshare.

Author

Chief Medical Adviser

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