Cheerfulness top of the charts for UK workers, but stress is still on the rise

While many UK employees are happy and relaxed at work, nearly a fifth still struggle with stress

Health and well-being at work has moved up the agenda for many employers over recent years. We’re seeing increasing evidence of organisations understanding the impact poor well-being can have, not only on their employees, but on wider organisational productivity, turnover and engagement. Importantly, we’re witnessing more openness around mental health – encouraged further by initiatives such as Mind’s Heads Together campaign – which aims to lift the stigma and help employees reach out if they are struggling.

The latest CIPD/Halogen Employee Outlook survey asked over 2,000 UK employees about their health and well-being at work, among other areas. Positively, employees were most likely to say that, over the past few weeks, work has made them feel cheerful most or all of the time, as opposed to any other feeling (29% of respondents). This was followed by optimistic and relaxed (both reported by 19% of respondents) which is particularly encouraging at a time of such uncertainty and change for the UK and the organisations and employees operating within it.

However, 18% of respondents said that work makes them feel stressed, a small but notable increase from autumn 2016. If left unaddressed, stress at work can lead to mental health issues, long-term absence at work, and high levels of employee turnover. Indeed, the CIPD’s latest Absence Management survey found that stress is now reported to be the most common cause of long-term absence in the UK, an issue that clearly needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

There are a number of reasons why employees might be stressed at work, the most common being workload. Indeed, nearly two-fifths of employees (38%) the CIPD surveyed said they were under excessive pressure at work at least once a week. Although this figure has remained stable over the last few surveys and hasn’t increased, it also hasn’t decreased, and remains even higher for those in the public sector (48% of employees). Similarly, almost a third of employees (31%) say they often or always come home from work exhausted.

One of the challenges for employers and line managers is that stress isn’t always visible, so any action taken to resolve it tends to be more reactive than proactive. But prevention is better than cure, and if organisations are able to put in place measures to monitor and alleviate stress at work before it develops into more serious issues, they can expect generally happier, healthier and more productive employees.

Line managers are key to helping to manage stress and wider employee well-being at work, as they see employees on a regular basis and are often the first port of call if there’s a problem. They need to be prepared to deal with any issues in the right way and so quality training for them is paramount. Encouragingly, the Employee Outlook research found that nearly three-quarters of employees (72%) feel that their manager is considerate of their well-being, so it looks like many organisations have understood how crucial it is for managers to be equipped with the right skills to manage employee well-being. However, it’s important to remember that training line managers to manage employee well-being is not a one-time event and should be regularly topped up. Line managers should be trained to have regular one-to-ones with their teams, both in a group and individually, to monitor their work and their well-being. They should also have access to supplementary resources if they have any specific questions, or be able to speak to an HR representative if an issue arises.

However, line managers and employers in general should also not assume that all employees struggling with stress at work will want to discuss it, and so alternative measures should be put in place. The CIPD uses a real-time survey on the company intranet where employees can rate their well-being and job satisfaction at any time, as many times as they like. While line managers receive a heat map with results of their wider team (so they can identify areas of particular concern), all responses are anonymous and this therefore encourages employees to be more honest.

While there a number of measures that can be put in place to help individuals suffering with stress, there are actions employers can take to prevent stress from developing in the first place. For example, flexible working is a good option for those starting to be affected by non-work factors (such as caring commitments), or those who would feel better working slightly different hours or from home every now and again. Employees who are more content at work are more likely to be productive, engaged and loyal, so it would be worthwhile for employers to make sure their employees are in a working situation that suits them.

Overall, managing stress at work is down to good communication and effective response. While measures such as flexible working and job sharing can help those with too much on their plate, employees need to feel that they can reach out for help in the first place, and the key to that is cultivating an open and safe environment, with line managers well-equipped to have those sometimes difficult conversations. With more proactive actions around stress at work, and organisations regularly reviewing and revising what their employees need, there’s no reason why cheerfulness and optimism shouldn’t remain at the top of the leader board for UK organisations.

The CIPD and Halogen will be speaking about the latest Employee Outlook survey at the HR Software Show at Olympia in London on 14 June. The session exploring current employee attitudes to work and working lives takes place at 13:30. Register to attend this free event.

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