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

HR must create a psychologically safe working environment to encourage employees to talk, reflect and explore their feelings following the stress and anxiety of recent years, finds Jo Gallacher

Catch up on part one of this cover story here

HR, quite rightly, makes identifying workers who are stressed, burned out or experiencing mental illness a key area of focus. But should it be solely responsible?

There are many reasons employees may be suffering from stress outside of the workplace, from the loss of a loved one or a relationship breakdown to genetics and lifestyle. Adding to the pressure is a community mental health network unable to cope with demand.

The UK's stress epidemic:

Keeping wellbeing simple

Employee wellbeing vital to healthy economy  

Wellbeing should be on par with health and safety 

Work stress: balancing the good with the bad 

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, two-fifths of patients waiting for mental health treatment were forced to resort to emergency or crisis services, with 11% ending up in Accident and Emergency.

This means more employers and HR are dealing with the direct implications of a stripped-back service by having to manage mental health issues internally. HR may be doing great work, but it’s no match for a well-rounded healthcare system.

Sharon McCormick is founder of Midlands-based employee support service the Listening Centre and has witnessed first-hand the implications of employees suffering severe stress and burnout.

She says: “We know that the effects of distressed employees in the workplace are highly damaging and far-reaching, from poor productivity and low morale to sickness, absence and high turnover. The causes of stress at work are well documented within the HSE Stress Management Standards.

“Tackling workplace stressors only addresses half of the problem because we bring the whole person to work, and this is evident as 50% of the presenting issues we see in therapy are non-work related. Due to the lack of emotional support services available to people, many employers are finding themselves trying to fill the gap.”

And it’s costing our economy too. Research from the Mental Health Foundation and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found poor mental health is costing the UK economy at least £117.9 billion annually, equivalent to 5% of the UK’s GDP.


All talk

But the fact the conversation now takes place at all is progress, with employees more willing to share their stories and admit to managers what they’re struggling with. A report by McKinsey found what had effectively been a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to mental health in the workplace is instead becoming ‘do ask, do tell, let’s talk’.

HR consultant Tim Ringo says the conversation has improved dramatically over the past three years, with this change coming from the top. “I have seen a willingness of people to talk about their mental health challenges in a way that has not happened in the past.


"The two most important people to the stress issue are the CEO and head of HR"


“To my mind, the two most important people to the mental health and stress issue in an organisation are the CEO and head of HR. The CEO sets the tone that it is okay to talk about and address these things. The HR lead setting the agenda and puts programmes in place for people to maintain good mental health.”

Matt Elliot, chief people officer at the Bank of Ireland (BOI), agrees. He says: “Colleagues need to know their organisation takes their wellbeing seriously. Often I find at the source of someone recovering from a mental heath issue was a conversation where they were able to talk about the problem.

“Creating the right environment for that to happen in our organisation is key. At BOI, we run two programmes to support managers specifically in being able to do this – we do not expect them to solve problems, but we have enabled them to identify the need for help and ensure it is provided.”

Although opening up the conversation may help others, for some employees it could be seen as an inappropriate invasion of privacy. In June, the Financial Times ran an article about the rise of the ‘nanny employer’ encroaching too far into our personal lives. It argued employees may not want to talk to their line manager about what’s keeping them up at night.

Yet Elliot argues if it impacts the employee, then it will inevitably influence the workplace. He adds: “I don’t agree that supporting mental health is akin to being a ‘nanny employer’ or intervening in people’s private lives inappropriately. I don’t care where a mental health issue originates, workplace or not, I want my organisation to be supportive.

“I explain this to colleagues in BOI by personalising it – if we imagine family members or friends in their workplace needing help, for whatever reason, I’m sure we would hope their company would be ready and willing to support them. It’s not being inappropriately paternalistic, it's simply about being a caring employer.

“This is a crucial role for HR to support colleagues with, and overcome any reservations colleagues may have as to the intent of the HR function, which we reassure colleagues at BOI is only about supporting them.”

Creating a culture of openness where employees feel willing to express their concerns and stresses can help them feel less alone, but given cases of work-related stress are rising despite huge leaps in mental health acceptance, is it helping?

Parry doesn’t seem to think so. “I am not convinced we are seeing any real change in our approach to mental health at work. We have seen a whole industry grow around employee wellbeing, but this focuses to a large extent on short-term fixes – sessions on mindfulness and yoga, apps that allow people to monitor their own wellbeing, for instance.

“I would like to see employers really reflecting on the causes of poor wellbeing and mental health, particularly those around workload and workplace culture, and considering how they can make changes to address these.”

Although things are returning to normal, Parry warns there’s a risk of neglecting wellbeing and mental health as we come out of lockdown, but this could be at the point workers really begin to feel it.

BHF’s Smith agrees, posing the pandemic as an opportunity for people to really reflect on their own wellbeing. She says: “Resources may be available and not accessed as people don’t recognise within themselves they are struggling to maintain their wellbeing. People may feel they are too busy to spend time on this, but that is when that self-reflection is more crucial.”

Although the pandemic may have worsened the mental health of some workers, Ringo says the change in culture of some organisations may lead to a positive impact longer term.

He says: “Presenteeism was having a negative impact on UK office work culture, but the good thing is the pandemic has broken this cycle to a certain extent. Both managers and employees feel more comfortable not being in the same place all the time.”

Given the collective grief and uncertainty employees have gone through over the past few years, if not longer, it shouldn’t come as a shock to any HR professional that a staff member may be suffering with stress, anxiety or depression. It’s a natural response to life’s many obstacles.

But out of the darkness can come opportunities for growth and discovery, and rising stress levels an opportunity for HR to open up the discourse and learn more about who makes up their organisations.

McCormick adds: “The consequences of the pandemic have not only shaken us all, some in unimaginable ways, but they’ve also demonstrated a collective worldview we can all now relate to – that healthy relationships are crucial to our wellbeing.”

Employees may be stressed for all manner of reasons, including work, but the conditions in which they are stressed are changing. Thanks in many ways to the progressive nature of the mental health conversation, they are now more equipped with the language they need to uncover their feelings. In the workplace, this has been reflected by considered wellbeing approaches and, in some instances, provision of extended EAPs.

HR should never feel solely responsible for the mental health of its workplace, but it can take great comfort that when it creates a psychologically safe working environment, employees will feel empowered to talk, reflect and explore their feelings.

As author Alexander den Heijer once said: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”


How HR can be an agent for change when it comes to stress management? (By Sharon McCormick, founder, The Listening Centre)

► Adopt a company-wide initiative to reframe the question ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What has happened to you?’ This invites a contextual and compassionate dialogue, as opposed to conversations that get shut down by fear, shame or guilt.

► Embed a person-centred wellbeing strategy that encompasses high-quality, trauma-informed specialist welfare support resources.

► Where possible, work with a local Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to ensure a best-fit approach to your business.

► Implement peer support programmes to embed healthy relationships at work, because feeling connected within any community is really good for us.


This is part two of two-part article that first appeared in the July/August 2022 print issue. 

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