Tackling the top 3 causes of stress at work

Today we launch our 2016 CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence management survey findings which coincide with National Stress Awareness Day. Our survey found that stress is now the most common cause of long-term absence and the second most common cause of short-term absence, after minor illness. 

Almost a third of organisations say they have seen an increase in stress-related absence over the past 12 months. In the 2015 Absence management survey report, 41% of employers reported an increase over the preceding year, so it looks like as a nation we are making some headway, but with stress being the top cause of long-term absence, it’s clear the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

This year’s National Stress Awareness Day theme is ‘Workforce wellness – your prime investment’ – appealing specifically to employers to take action to ensure the well-being of their people who, ultimately, are their business. And our survey findings can help to focus attention on the main causes of stress at work, in the hope of inspiring more preventative action within organisations, rather than a reactive approach after issues emerge.

Workload remains the most common cause of stress at work, followed by non-work factors (for example relationships and family) and management style, according to the 1,091 HR professionals we surveyed. Taking each of these factors in turn, we can start to think about how to get to the grass roots of the issue and tackle the most common reasons people are feeling under pressure.

First, workload. Many organisations are operating with a smaller workforce than before the recession – to what extent are we working smarter, or are we just doing the same things we’ve always done, with additional workload? And a high workload often means working extra hours to stay on top of things. Our findings show organisations who say a long working hours culture is the norm are more likely to report they’ve seen an increase in stress-related absence over the past year. Worryingly a higher proportion of survey respondents this year said long working hours are the norm in their organisation (56% report this is the case to at least a moderate extent, compared with 43% in our 2015 survey). This finding tallies with recent research from the TUC which found a 15% increase on the amount of people working over 48 hours a week since 2010.

When we talk about problems of workload, we tend to mean having too much work. However, there is also some research into the effects at boredom at work, so having too little to do or unchallenging work. In an article for WBUR Cognoscenti, Andrew Yap, Assistant Professor at INSEAD, proposes a Goldilocks principle of stress at work. He suggests stress related to boredom can lead to counterproductive behaviour, such as working more slowly or surfing the internet aimlessly.

Employers with a long hours’ culture need to be taking action to address it, starting with senior leaders and line managers leading by example and questioning why staff are saying late if they’re doing so on a regular basis.

Line managers need to sit down regularly with each member of their team to check-in, see how they are and provide the opportunity for any issues to be raised. These conversations need to include discussion of workload and which tasks or projects are the current priorities. Line managers need to then be considering workloads across their whole team to ensure tasks are allocated fairly and evenly.

The second most common cause of stress-related absence was reported to be non-work factors. It makes sense that if we’re experiencing challenges in our personal life, they don’t disappear when we walk in the door to work. Many employers are supporting staff in this respect, with the top well-being benefits provided being counselling services and employee assistance programmes. Two-fifths of organisations we surveyed said they use flexible working options/improved work-life balance to help identify and reduce stress in the workplace. However, fewer employers this year told us they offer leave for family circumstances to manage absence, despite the same proportion of employers telling us it is among their most effective methods of managing absence.

More employers need to regularly review their well-being offering ensuring they understand the implications of removing particular initiatives. It’s also important to keep communicating to employees what the organisation provides and how to access it. For example, employees may not know that they can call an employee assistance programme to discuss non-work related issues, or be unsure of how confidential the employer-funded services are.

Third is management style. Our survey findings and wider CIPD research support the view that the role of the manager is critical in both effectively managing absence and creating a healthy workplace where employee well-being is taken seriously. Managers tend to be the first point of call for employees on issues such as workload or requests for flexibility. They need to feel both competent and confident to have what can often be sensitive conversations with staff, and to know where to signpost them for support if needed, including the way the organisation can support them, for example how to access employer-provided counselling services, an employee assistance programme or flexible working options.

Training for line managers is essential to ensure they feel able to have the appropriate conversations with staff. However this training is often provided when managers first come into role and it may be a while before they encounter their first difficult conversation, or they may encounter a complex situation beyond what the training covered, so training needs to be supplemented with tailored support to advice and guide them when needed.

It’s clear from our findings that action is needed, but one of the most prominent findings in the survey for me was that three-fifths of survey respondents told us their organisation was much more reactive (taking action when people have gone off sick) than proactive when it comes to employee well-being. If we’re really to combat the amount of stress-related absence at work, we need to be identifying and addressing the root causes.

Read the Absence management survey report #nsad

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  • I am trying to source mediation training for 10 of our workforce.  Money tight as it is I was wondering if anyone who has just been trained would like some experience in a diverse working environment.  Northern Ireland based

  • Training managers to have potentially difficult conversations with employees with an absenteeism problem is an important part of dealing with these issues. Once the true reason has been discovered, Workplace mediation may also help to find solutions that will avoid disciplinary procedures, such as introducing some form of flexible working or identifying steps that could be addressed within the workplace to remove or reduce the risk of future absences.This can sometimes be a very difficult conversation to have because the employee may have some intensely personal reason that they feel embarrassed or uneasy about sharing. However,  it can be important to the fairness of any potential subsequent formal proceedings to find out what the reason is. For instance, one of the classic reactions to being bullied or discriminated against at work can be persistent short-term absenteeism caused by the employee being unable to face coming to work. Dismissing an employee in these circumstances can easily expose an employer to some form of discrimination claim as well as a claim for unfair dismissal. Similarly, the frequent illnesses might be connected to some physical aspect of the work, such as poor lifting or handling of items in the workplace or excessive workloads. Such issues need to be carefully explored and resolved where possible, especially if there is any potential criticism of the underlying working practices.

    Alan Dillon-Mediation Rescue. Chartered MCIPD