Mental health issues are one of the largest causes of workplace absence – and not recognising the signs can cause them to get worse. Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services, AXA PPP healthcare, asks how organisations can prepare their managers to spot stress – and what to do next
Stress at work is too important to ignore. Far better to take a proactive approach to addressing it rather than waiting for a problem to arise for, if left unchecked, stress can adversely affect wellbeing, performance and productivity. The following pointers should help managers to deal with stress in their teams and, where it does occur, ensure they know what to do to help prevent it escalating into a bigger mental health problem.
Arguably the best approach to managing workplace stress is to be proactive and tackle it head on. This normalises the concept and reduces fear and stigma. Key to achieving this is building and maintaining an open and honest workplace culture. This is essential for establishing an environment where employees can be confident to speak to their managers without fear when they find they’re struggling to deal with the pressures in their lives – whether from home or work. To be credible, this should be authentic and modelled from the top, with senior management leading by example and evidencing their own awareness and understanding of the importance of psychological wellbeing. As an integral part of this, they should positively support a healthy work/life balance.
Taking time to relax and recover helps both to relieve stress and build resilience. Managers should encourage staff to take regular breaks when at work, avoid regularly working overtime and, where practicable, avoid having to respond to emails and calls outside of their contracted hours. Managers should also try to ensure that employees use their full entitlement of annual leave.
It’s good to talk
Regularly talk to the members of your team. Simply asking them how they are is a good way to gauge their mood and how they are dealing with the pressures they are facing. Stress can be triggered by a multitude of different causes and at any time so regularly reviewing workload, performance and priorities not only helps to build and maintain rapport, it also provides an early opportunity to identify the warning signs of stress and, in turn, offers an early opportunity try to address the issue.
While it goes without saying that managers should ensure that employees are properly trained and supported to deliver what’s expected of them, it’s important to be attentive to workload and performance. It’s essential not to overload them and, if you do see performance slipping – for example, by regularly staying late or making uncharacteristic errors – or unusual changes in mood, make time for a constructive conversation. See whether something in their work or home life is affecting their performance, The sooner you identify the issue, the sooner you can begin to address it – for example, by steering them to the company’s own resources, such as confidential counselling services or an employee assistance programme, or other alternatives such as their own GP or helplines provided by mental health charities such as Mind.
Diet and exercise
While managers may be nervous to advise employees on lifestyle choices, these can have a significant effect on mood and psychological wellbeing. Even simple measures such as encouraging employees to have a healthy, balanced diet and take regular exercise can make a big difference to wellbeing and resilience. For their part, employers can help by ensuring staff canteens, vending machines and delivery services offer healthy choices. They can also promote physical activity through the likes of walking groups during lunch breaks or company sports teams.
Managers have a critical role to play in safeguarding psychological wellbeing. They should be properly trained and supported to be aware of and understand the importance of mental health and know what to do if they find a member of their team is struggling. This will give them the confidence both to work well and to offer early support to employees who are having difficulty coping with the pressures in their lives.
Dr Mark Winwood is the Director of Psychological Services at AXA PPP healthcare. He holds Associate Fellowship and Chartership with the British Psychological Society, he is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and is a chartered Scientist. Prior to joining AXA Mark worked as a Senior Psychologist in the NHS and has many years of clinical experience and research expertise. He is an active member of the EAPA, BPS and BACP – Workplace. He maintains a private practice as a Psychologist in London.