Some interesting statistics have been highlighted recently during Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, and Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S.
Among them is the staggering finding that one in four people will experience a mental health problem every year.
One element which undoubtedly plays a significant role in this is workplace stress. And because job competition and pressure to succeed is inextricably ingrained in our culture of work, workplace stress can worryingly seem like the norm for most.
A recent survey of U.S. workers found that 83 percent find at least one thing about their job role stressful; while previous studies have found as many as 40 percent of the American workforce consider their jobs to be "very" or "extremely" stressful.
The UK is at least somewhat on a par, with recent research indicating that 56 percent of Brits would define their jobs as "quite" or "very" stressful.
It’s obvious then that employers have a duty to combat stress wherever they can, for the sake of public health on a holistic scale. But it should also be noted that businesses stand to gain financially from improving working conditions.
A 2014 UK government report said that poor mental health had resulted in 70 million work days being lost in Britain during the previous year. The cost to the country’s economy of this was estimated to be in the £70 to £100 billion range.
Emma Mamo from Mind, a UK-based mental charity that works with businesses to create healthier work environments, says that: "promoting good workplace wellbeing makes business sense, as it drives staff engagement, morale, loyalty and productivity," as well as reducing employee sickness.
So what processes can office managers implement to help improve working conditions, and reduce the likelihood of their employees encountering health issues caused by stress?
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Workplace Hygiene Training
Let’s start with the basics. Of course, having a clean office is paramount for health in general; a clean communal kitchen limits the risk of food poisoning, and a regularly cleaned work area reduces the presence of dust and other irritants, which can trigger allergies.
But office hygiene is crucial for stress reduction too. Many people will feel naturally irritated by a dirty or unhygienic workplace, or become demotivated if they feel like they are the only employees making an effort to maintain cleanliness standards, and this can obviously play a big factor in stress.
So it’s important then to call regular meetings and set some ground rules. Share the responsibility by involving the team in drawing up a cleanliness charter, and let everyone have a say. It may sound like a cliche, but a cleaner workplace really is a happier one.
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Regular Team Building Sessions
Organizations invariably have different structures, and some roles will naturally tend toward less engagement with the rest of the team than others. For those working in these roles, it can be easy to feel less included or isolated from their colleagues.
Managers need to head this off at the pass by holding team building functions on a regular basis. Less involved employees may initially view these events with skepticism, but are more likely to feel welcomed into the fold with gentle encouragement. They’re also a great opportunity for those staff whose roles may tend to bring them into positions of conflict to put aside their differences and spend some time bonding; thereby alleviating feelings of mutual stress.
It’s a good idea to be as varied as you can with your choice of activity. Try to alternate purely social meetings (such as a communal meal out in a restaurant) with more active team events (such as laser-tag, go-karting), so that the dynamic remains stimulating, and doesn’t become routine or stale.
Agreed Flexi-Time Periods
Flexible working time is perhaps one of the most effective introductions in modern working culture. Recent statistics show that 27 percent of U.S. employers now allow most or all of their staff to periodically change the start or quitting times within some range of hours; which attests to the positive effect of this practice on productivity.
But moreover, it can be a huge help for those who are susceptible to stress; and particularly, Emma Mamo from mental health charity Mind explains, for those who face a challenging daily commute:
"If someone is experiencing panic attacks triggered by their daily commute," she uses as an example, "even adjusting working hours by an hour or two either way could make all the difference if it means someone doesn’t have to travel on public transport at peak time."
Employee Assistance Schemes
Businesses need to have an employee assistance framework in place to help staff overcome stress and other personal issues for a number of reasons.
Not only does it enable staff to come forward with confidence should the need arise, but it also reassures those who don’t need assistance yet that you, as an employer, are prioritizing staff wellbeing. And when staff feels comfortable that they can raise such issues, it reduces the likelihood that they will simply sit quietly on the problem and allow it to develop into an even larger situation necessitating time off work with stress.
Don’t panic: it doesn’t have to be a grand, costly internal framework. For smaller businesses, a scheme which is overseen by one person with assistance from management may suffice, providing it can refer the employee to the appropriate external counseling and support services where necessary.
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Regular One-on-One Policy
It’s common for employees who are stressed to feel as though their progress doesn’t matter to management. Often this isn’t the case; managers will often have piles of tasks to on their to-do lists as well, and if the staff isn't complaining, appraisals may not seem as pressing.
Having frequent one-on-one meetings with employees is nonetheless crucial; even more so if one or more of your team has disclosed feelings of stress or an issue which may affect their health, mental or physical.
In such cases, drawing up a personal action plan, as well as helping to follow up on any support and treatment an employee has received externally, is a great way to ensure that you as an employer are holding up your end of the bargain. It provides a means for management to make helpful adjustments to an employee’s workload, and ultimately, once again lets them know their views are being listened to.