· Comment

How can HR leaders help manage psychological stress in the workplace?

Work-related stress, anxiety and depression cost the UK economy 13.7 million working days a year

The physical health and safety of workers has been an ever-increasing priority for UK industries ever since the introduction of the Factories Act of 1833.

However, with HR professionals now under more pressure than ever before to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of their workforce, psychological stress cannot be overlooked. 

How can HR teams prevent stress from occurring in workplaces?

Think 'health and safety' and you’ll probably picture dangerous machinery, forklifts, or even an employee balancing on a precarious ladder. Physical safety has long been integral to business, with stringent frameworks now in place to ensure the safety of employees in the workplace.

The psychological needs of employees, however, is a concept far newer than its physical counterpart, and as a consequence still lacks awareness from C-suite executives and the wider workforce alike. As a result, HR professionals are under increasing pressure to not only understand the effects of psychological stress, but how to effectively manage it.

The importance of this cannot be understated. As of 2022, it was found that 55% of workers believe work is getting more intense and, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 13.7 million working days are lost every year due to work-related stress, anxiety and depression. With this costing UK PLC £28.3 billion every year, it’s easy to see why more and more HR professionals are looking for solutions to managing the psychological safety of their workforce.

Work-related stress guidance published as sickness rates increase

So what does it take to manage psychological wellbeing in the workplace? A long-term commitment, training and continuous improvement.

So, how can HR departments begin making headway?

First off, it’s important to acknowledge the seriousness of psychological wellbeing at work, as well as the typical triggers for stress.

The most common causes for workplace stress broadly fall into six categories:

  • Demands
  • Controls
  • Support
  • Relationships
  • Role
  • Change

Taking a deeper dive, these triggers can vary from workload and intensity, workplace environment and culture, career development, and our working relationships, through to more nuanced triggers such as role clarity, work values butting up against personal beliefs, organisational change, isolation and exclusion, and external pressures. The biggest trigger though, which can be a result of multiple triggers listed above, is a poor work/life balance.

Playing a dangerous game: why are we so stressed at work?

Once these things are understood, the next step is to acknowledge that these stressors impact people in different ways. HR professionals will know that we all have different levels of tolerance, different limits, and different stress management techniques. Every employee is different and has been shaped by a variety of external circumstances that can make them more or less at risk of stress.

Those at the greatest risk of stress are vulnerable workers, as are workers with disabilities, older workers, younger workers, and new and expectant parents. Gender is also a factor; women are at increased risk of workplace stress.

So, acknowledging all of this, what actions can HR professionals take?

The first step in addressing workplace stress, beyond acknowledging its existence and its triggers, is training support to help HR departments effectively design and establish a working system of support for workers.

There are several relevant NEBOSH health and safety courses to assist HR professionals, including the HSE Certificate in Managing Stress at Work, and Working with Wellbeing courses, both of which RRC offers.

After you have a firm grasp of the fundamentals, it’s a matter of gaining true buy-in from your organisation’s leadership. HR professionals looking to develop their own system for their organisation should review their current policy statement and assess how much weight it has in tackling stress. It’s also worth appointing a steering group to continually reinvigorate your efforts.

Once you’ve effectively assessed the specific risk factors within the company, it’s a matter of organising and prioritising quick wins, assigning long-term actions, and most importantly, communicating your plan within your organisation.

To have a long-lasting effect, it is the job of HR professionals to ensure that an environment of open conversation is both established and upheld, where issues are flagged and dealt with a solution-focused approach.

HR professionals can play a vital role in protecting the psychological wellbeing of a company’s workforce. It’s not simple, but it’s well worth the effort.                                    

By Marshel Rozario, consultant at RRC International