Executive Education

How to tackle stress and boost worker wellbeing

By Rebekah Haymes, Willis Towers Watson
Executive Education
Published: 17 July 2017

The stigma around mental illness is very real and, despite the progress made in recent years, it remains a significant issue for British businesses.

Here, Willis Towers Watson’s Health and Benefits Senior Consultant Rebekah Haymes explores the impact of stress and ill mental health on both employees and employers, and outlines measures business leaders can take to boost staff retention and drive down absenteeism.

A rising tide of stress-related claims
In Willis Towers Watson’s Staying@Work Survey, two thirds (67%) of UK employers said worker stress was the number one cause for concern when it came to health-related issues.

Due to a tightening of case law around stress claims brought in employment tribunals and a prevalence of ‘no win, no fee’ solicitors, it is possible we will see more stress claims brought as personal injury claims.

There is real potential for this trend to continue over the coming years, creating an extra cost burden on top of the negative impact in terms of absence, productivity and reputational damage.

Employers should not only be looking at how they can support their staff in case of illness but should also be looking to implement preventative measures and the appropriate culture to ensure issues are identified and tackled before they develop.

Challenging scepticism and instilling empathy
Although much work has been done to break the taboo around mental illness, the issue remains a highly sensitive one, particularly within the workplace.

Willis Towers Watson Health & Benefits Barometer research revealed that one in five (20%) British workers are sceptical about colleagues who take time off as a result of mental health issues, such as depression, stress and anxiety.

The same study found that 14% of workers do not believe stress is a genuine mental health condition and 21% believe colleagues who have previously suffered from mental health issues are less able to fulfil their job role properly.
This attitude to stress and mental health issues only serves to isolate the sufferer, making them less likely to raise the issue with an employer and more likely to suffer in silence.

And if these issues are not managed effectively, businesses can expect to experience higher rates of turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism – something employers are acutely aware of.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s Absence Management Survey 2016 found that more than half of employers included stress among their five most common causes of long-term absence (53%), followed closely by mental ill health at 49%.

If an employee has been absent due to mental health, returning to work can be a complicated and sensitive process – particularly if that environment is potentially hostile.

In order to make reintegration run smoothly, it is important to ensure the employee is returning to a safe and supportive environment. One way to ensure this is by offering staff empathy training.
Such training provides guidance on how to interact with colleagues in a sensitive manner that promotes mutual understanding. Training might also include guidance on how to identify when colleagues are struggling and how best to approach them.

Know your workforce
Willis Towers Watson Health & Benefits Barometer research also revealed that two thirds of mental health sufferers did not speak to their manager about their issues.

The biggest reason why workers suffering from mental health issues did not talk to management was the fear it would impact upon job prospects.

This was cited by 33% of respondents, followed by the worry they would not receive adequate support (30%), concern their manager would not understand (28%) and the fear it might make management think less of them (23%).
It is evident that workers harbour deep anxiety about how their mental health issues would be perceived in the work environment. Leaders can help alleviate this by speaking openly about the importance of good mental health and by creating an open-door environment in the office.

Training line managers to be better equipped to support their teams should be a key focus for many employers.

Managers can help make adjustments to accommodate staff who have returned to work following mental ill-health. These are generally simple, practical and cost-effective. It is first important to speak to the employee in question to understand their specific concerns and requirements before offering adjustments to suit.

One of the most common adjustments offered to staff is flexible working. This might mean changes to start or finish times, more regular breaks or home working – all designed to help the employee make a gradual return to full work.

Adjustments may also include changes to the workspace, access to quiet rooms or an agreement to grant leave at short notice, allowing an employee to take time off for appointments related to their mental health.

If stress management and resilience programmes are offered by the company, encourage employee engagement.
Employee Assistance Programmes are cost-effective benefits that provide employees with access to 24/7 telephone helplines and trained counsellors.

Such measures can and do improve retention. Employers who took part in Willis Towers Watson’s Global Talent Management and Rewards Study said that helping employees manage stress is one of the top five ways to strengthen their retention programmes.

Anticipate risk
Most businesses monitor the physical health of their employees in order to get a handle on sickness and reduce absence but, given the clear relationship between stress and sickness absence, it is important to monitor mental wellbeing too.

The first step in doing this could be to conduct regular stress risk assessments. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides guidance on how this can be done, enabling employers to identify risks and begin taking action to reduce the impact of stress on employees.

Risk assessments look at issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment, support provided by the organisation, management and colleagues, and workplace relationships among other factors.

In order to implement preventative measures, it is imperative to establish a proper reporting structure for absence related to stress or mental health issues.

Good data is crucial in identifying areas where problems are most acute and for developing appropriate solutions.

This approach not only strengthens the wellbeing of the workforce by identifying and anticipating trends but eases the financial implications of stress-related absences, as well as strengthening the business’ position as an attractive employer of choice.