Whilst identifying a stress problem and taking steps to address it are of course important, preventing stress from becoming a problem in the first place is ideal, and at least preventing it from recurring.
What this means is being aware of what causes stress, what factors in your specific business are more likely to trigger stress, and making every effort to improve those. Here are five steps you can take to prevent a stress problem in your small business.
1. Understand what causes it
Most common causes for stress-related absence are workload, management style, non-work factors, relationships at work and organisational change. So in fact most stress-related absence is work-related.
Stress affects people in different ways and what one person finds stressful can be normal to another. Certain individual factors can have a bearing on whether someone suffers stress in a given situation, such as background and culture; personal circumstances; health status; ethnicity, gender, age or disability; and other demands being placed on them.
2. Arm yourself with information
A key starting point in preventing stress is to have a look at how you are managing the factors known to cause it, and establish whether there are any issues. Ask yourself the following questions.
- Do you know what your employees think about their workload?
- Do you know what your employees think about how they are managed?
- How much do you know about relationships between employees at work?
- When there are tensions, are you stepping in or avoiding them?
- When you have to restructure, make redundancies or other similar events, are you taking proper professional advice and managing these things well?
- Do you know your employees well enough to understand whether they are more likely to suffer stress?
If you don’t know the answers to some of those questions, you can look at engagement surveys to find out, but actually much of the information you need to answer those questions and address those factors can be elicited through annual appraisals, regular one-to-ones and just increased awareness of what’s going on. Make sure you “walk the floor’ regularly, rather than hide in your office.
3. Improve management style
The CIPD highlighted in their 2019 annual Health and Wellbeing survey that management style is the second main cause of stress-related absence. Ensure managers in your business are trained in how to manage people effectively, including how to spot potential stress problems early. Are they being fair and consistent in how they treat staff? Are they approachable in the event of problems? Do they know how to design jobs so that workload isn’t unmanageable and people have as much control over their work as is doable? Do they lead by example in terms of discouraging presenteeism and healthy working habits? Do they provide good support to their teams?
Many managers, in particular in small businesses, are promoted to management level by being good at whatever it is the team does, or through longevity, but do not necessarily have the skills or knowledge needed to be a good manager. Management training doesn’t have to be expensive but investing in at least some basics can do wonders to prevent a stress problem in your business (as well as having myriad other benefits!), so it’s definitely worth considering, given the key role line managers have in making the workplace as stress-free for staff as possible.
4. Promote wellbeing
Place wellbeing at work high on your list of priorities in your business, and consider initiatives to promote it. You can look at tangible ways to make the workplace a pleasant environment, encourage and facilitate flexible working, offer an employee assistance helpline and look at other health initiatives.
Indicating that you consider their wellbeing a priority is in itself likely to reduce the likelihood of work-related stress problems, as at the very least, it should encourage staff to feel able to raise any concerns about workload or other factors with their line manager.
5. Consider HSE standards
Something else you can do is look at the HSE’s Management Standards approach to dealing with stress. It outlines five Standards which, if met, reduce the likelihood of stress problems.
The Standards are:
including issues like workload, work patterns and working environment
meaning how much control a person has over the way they do their work
including line management, colleagues and resources
including avoiding conflict and responding to concerns
meaning whether people understand their role within the business.
You don’t necessarily need a specific stress policy, although many employers do have one to ensure there is a framework in place for recognising, addressing and preventing stress, and providing a course of action for both managers and employees.
Most of this really boils down to really good people management. If you design jobs and organise work well, and make sure managers have the skills to manage effectively, employees will feel more motivated, engaged and less stressed.
If you think you have a stress problem in your business, or want to look at ways of preventing it, do get in touch.