GTP20: Why tackling work-related stress is key to staff and business resilience


This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2020 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2020 this involves 8 free workshops taking place between 2nd March and 27th March, culminating in a full-day Growth Through People conference on 2nd April. In addition, throughout the campaign the Chambers will be publishing thought leadership podcasts, videos and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Headline Sponsors – Prime Accountants Group, Aston University, Curium Solutions and CIPD - all workshops are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more and register to attend Growth Through People workshops here, and the Growth Through People conference here.

If your business has been hit by a high-level of employee sickness absence, low morale or valued staff leaving, it is likely that work-related stress will be one of the causes.

Stress undermines employee health and wellbeing and performance

The CIPD’s annual Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey consistently finds that work-related stress is one of the top causes of both short and long-term sickness absence. Stressed employees also have lower job satisfaction, are more likely to be looking for a new job and are more likely to make mistakes or have an accident.

Stress can be defined as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure. Of course, pressure is part and parcel of working life but when the level of pressure exceeds people’s ability to cope and is sustained over a long period it can have a negative effect on their wellbeing and performance at work.

Stress impairs people’s cognitive capacity and consequently their ability to manage emotions and make rationale decisions. Stress affects people in different ways; for some it might mean they are more irritable or have a shorter temper than usual or they feel over-whelmed and have difficulty focusing or prioritising work. Stress is also often linked to trouble sleeping, an increase in feelings of anxiety and problems with memory or concentration.

There is strong evidence showing that stress has significant long-term negative consequences for people’s health. Research published in The Lancet showed that emotional stress is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Stress is also linked with common mental health problems like anxiety and depression

Actions managers can take to prevent and manage work-related stress

CIPD’s 2019 Health and Wellbeing Survey based on responses from more than 1,000 employers highlights the areas that managers need to focus on to prevent and manage work-related stress.

Workload remains the most common cause of stress at work, followed by management style, relationships at work and non-work factors such as home family demands and responsibilities, according to the 1,078 employers we surveyed. Taking 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. 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. Employers with a long hours’ culture need to take action to address it, starting with senior leaders and line managers leading by example and questioning why staff are not taking lunch breaks or staying late if they are 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 and if changes can be made to enable people to work smarter rather than harder. Line managers need to then be considering workloads across their whole team to ensure tasks are allocated fairly and evenly.

Second, management style. Our survey findings and wider CIPD research supports 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. Anyone who manages people on a regular basis needs training or at very least advice and guidance on how to do this properly. Good managers provide people with clear objectives, constructive feedback and support and flexibility where necessary.

Third, relationships at work.

Poor work relationships are another top reported cause of stress at work. Conflict between work colleagues and issues such as bullying and sexual harassment are fatally toxic to people’s wellbeing and work culture and must be identified at an early stage and tackled head on. Again, the role of the manager is key in leading by example to role model the behaviours expected in the workplace and in identifying and preventing inappropriate behaviour among staff. Managers must be confident to intervene if there is a danger that so-called ‘banter’ is crossing the line and upsetting people or if there is any sign of inappropriate language or behaviour. Managers should try and intervene early and deal with problems informally if possible but there must also be clearly understood disciplinary and grievance procedures if there is a need to take formal action.

Fourth, non-work issues. 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. Employers can help their staff manage any issues or challenges they may face at home by providing as much flexibility as possible. This might be through providing a flexible start and finish time, working from home or working reduced hours for a period of time. Other flexible working practices like job sharing, compressed hours or term-time working can help employees balance their work and non-work lives over the longer term particularly if they have significant caring responsibilities whether for children or for their parents as they get older.

Free expert HR support available

If you need help on any of these issues, you can apply for free face-to-face HR advice and business support, from the People Skills initiative, which is run by the CIPD with Government funding. The People Skills initiative is supported by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and Growth Hub, the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, West Midlands Combined Authority, Aston University, Birmingham University, Birmingham City University, and South Birmingham & City College.

Please phone 07872403580 or email to take part.

Ben Willmott
Head of Public Policy