· 3 min read · Features

Reasons to be cheerful about stress


Employers will doubtless have read numerous articles telling them how bad workplace stress is and how the recession is exacerbating matters - articles that probably cause more stress and leave them wondering how to manage the problem.

But they say ‘everything in moderation' - and stress is no exception. The right level of stress is beneficial and a certain amount of good stress is actually essential for effective functioning. With too little stress, we become bored and disengaged which, in a corporate context, is bad news.  

Good HR means finding a way to inject the right level of stress into the workplace...and empowering employees to cope.

Research shows our immune system benefits from short bursts of good stress: when we are faced with a threat or challenge, our body responses prepare us so we are able to overcome it.  But stress becomes bad when the threat or challenge we face exceeds our perceived ability to cope, leading to suppressed immunity, depression and anxiety. The key for employers is finding a way to stimulate positive stress and limit the opportunities for this to become negative.

Finding the right balance

Our ability to cope with stress is termed resilience and is unique to each individual. This makes it difficult to clearly define how and when stress occurs, but there is strong evidence that an individual's resilience can be enhanced.

This is where HR comes in. Empowering employees with tools that enable them to cope with work and the stress of modern living will raise levels of resilience and can have immediate positive returns for an organisation. Studies suggest companies that help employees deal effectively with stress benefit from increased engagement. Reduced levels of long-term stress mean fewer absences and less workforce disruption, leading to greater productivity.

Care must be taken in initiating any resilience or stress management programme to ensure that you do not give the appearance that you are trying to eradicate stress. It's good to be reminded that some stress is good - the focus should be on giving staff the tools to deal with the stress that inevitably occurs in the modern lifestyle.

Tools for the workplace

To promote good mental health at work, you should follow a handful of basic guidelines:

Empower employees

Resilience to stress is increased where we are in control of our workspace. Discourage micromanagement and empower individuals to take control of their environment, whether it is setting deadlines or flexible working.

Boost energy

Corporate support for sports activities, good nutrition or health screening will help employees to identify and act on areas of health risk and boost energy levels. Poor diet and sleep deprivation can negatively impact on energy. Even encouraging employees to work intensely for a couple of hours before taking a good break and getting a drink has been shown to improve productivity and wellbeing.

Encourage community

Employees will feel more supported if they are able to discuss difficult issues with their colleagues. Creating opportunities for individuals to interact in a social setting will boost engagement and reduce the risk of employees being negatively impacted by stress.

Align line management

It is important to engage with line management and obtain their full support. If line management remain distant and unsupportive, HR campaigns will be ineffective.

Identify the warning signs

Employees will exhibit warning signs of stress - weight gain, susceptibility to colds and even increased error rates. By putting in place mechanisms to spot these, perhaps through absence monitoring and heightened awareness of line managers, the organisation can help employees to recover more quickly.
Provide effective support

Many of you will have put in place an employee assistance programme (EAP). As a first line of defence the counselling and legal advisory support provided by EAPs can be a powerful ally in the fight against stress. But are these reaching employees and providing the support they need? All too often they appear as tick-box offerings rather than part of a comprehensive wellbeing strategy.

Create a 'can do' environment

If employees view the challenges they encounter as hurdles to be overcome rather than barriers to success, stress will be minimised. Creating a 'can do' environment, with open communication about where the business is going and collaborative involvement will help employees cope with the challenges they face.

Now more than ever

The present economic downturn makes it essential to manage stress and to empower employees to cope. Stress cannot be removed - most of it is outside your control, but creating a supportive working environment means stress can be regarded as a positive contributor to the progress of the company. Stress can be good for you.

Colin Bullen is a consultant in the retirement and healthcare practice at Hewitt Associates