6 areas of work to address to promote good employee health and wellbeing
The demands of work can be a major source of stress for employees. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recognises this and has put together guidance to help employers understand the sources of workplace stress and how to address them. In this article, we’ll take a look at 6 key areas of work that need to be properly managed in order to promote good health, increased productivity and reduced accident and sickness rates.
In my previous article, I shared the reasons why a responsible employer should invest in their employee’s wellbeing in the workplace and help create a mentally healthy working environment, identifying that it’s not just the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business. Let’s take this a step further and look at the root causes of stress in the workplace.
What is stress?
To understand the causes, it is important to first understand what stress is. The CBI (Confederation of British Industries) define stress as “That which arises when the pressure placed upon an individual exceeds the capacity of that individual to cope”. The HSE (Health & Safety Executive) describe stress as “an adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other types of demands place upon them”.
Both definitions highlight not just pressure, but excessive pressure, being placed on an individual with stress as the result.
Positive pressure vs Stress
People often talk about “positive stress” and in defining stress and its potentially traumatic effects, it is important to understand the difference between “positive pressure” and stress. Yes, pressure can be a good thing. The right amount of pressure can give us diamonds after all. But how much? Too little will leave us with coal, and too much can turn that coal into dust.
Basically, to operate at our best, we need to have a certain amount of pressure as too little challenge creates boredom and even depression. The pressure response gives us purpose. It creates motivation, the energy that drives us to perform at our optimum level and allows us to feel accomplished when we face challenges and overcome them.
The problem is that there is no standard, or perfect pressure, as for every individual the right balance varies. Some people will thrive on being very busy, with lots of challenges and deadlines, whereas others would find the same load excessive and struggle to cope. The same person, however, at a different point in time, may not cope so well.
Pressure can help us respond to challenges and be potentially motivating. Too little can lead to lethargy and demotivation, and excessive amounts can lead to individuals struggling to cope and ultimately become harmful, which is by no definition “positive”.
Positive pressure helps us improve and achieve, but if we are under too much pressure we then become stressed.
Why do we become stressed?
So why do we become stressed? In a nutshell, it is down to our fight or flight response. Thousands of years ago it protected us from life-threatening predators, by giving a rush of hormones that made us ready for action. This was a very useful physiological response when our daily commute was shared with sabre tooth tigers.
Not so much today though, where we don’t generally have to contend with such dangers on our way into the office. But our bodies still employ the same fight or flight response. Nowadays triggered by anything from road rage or a nasty bill to a harsh email or unwanted confrontation. Terrifying big-toothed cats or not, they still pay into our daily stress bucket.
What is the fight or flight response?
The fight or flight response is a natural, instinctive way of protecting ourselves from danger. It is an automatic reflex that doesn’t require thought or conscious decision-making.
When we experience something that our brain perceives as a threat, or we are under too much pressure, it sets off an alarm system in our body. This then triggers the adrenal glands to suddenly flood the body with hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline, which prepares our body for action and is designed to give us the energy and strength we need to protect ourselves from danger.
In other words, it’s a survival mechanism. This is known as the “fight or flight” response.
What happens to your body in fight or flight mode
The physical signs we may recognise when this response is activated, are:
- the mind becomes more alert
- the pupils will dilate
- the jaw will become tight and muscles stiffen
- our neck and shoulders hold tension
- our hair stands on end
- we sweat
- our mouths go dry
- our breathing and heart rate will speed up and our blood pressure will increase.
- we might experience nausea or butterflies in our stomach
- or need to relieve our bladders.
It can even give us constipation or… er… the opposite, leading to “stress shits” (yes, that’s a real term for one such psychological disorder of the gut). It’s also quite possibly where the well-known phrase “crap yourself” comes from when you get a fright.
What’s happening on the inside?
There are several, less outwardly obvious changes, that also occur during a fight or flight response.
- Our liver releases the glycogen it normally stores. As the store of glycogen runs out, we effectively start to run out of fuel, and tiredness sets in.
- Our pancreas releases extra insulin and fatty acids are released into our bloodstream.
- Our adrenal glands produce extra adrenaline and cortisol, which keeps us in that heightened state of alertness.
The fight or flight response is the body’s primary reaction to stress, and when the danger has passed, our body returns to normal and the physical symptoms subside. However, if we experience frequent or prolonged periods of stress, our bodies can become stuck in the fight or flight response. This can lead to a whole host of health problems, both physical and psychological.
6 Root Causes of Stress in the Workplace
The HSE Management Standards identify 6 key areas of work that need to be properly managed to promote good health, increased productivity and reduced accident and sickness rates. If not, they could be the root causes of stress for employees. They are Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role and Change.
1. Demands – includes workload, work patterns and the work environment.
The standard for Demands is that “employees indicate that they are able to cope with the demands of their jobs, and systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns”.
2. Control – how much say a person has in the way they do their work.
The standard for Control is that “employees indicate that they are able to have a say about the way they do their work and systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns”.
3. Support – includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
The standard for Support is “employees indicate that they receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors, and systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns”.
4. Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.
The standard for Role is “employees indicate that they understand their role and responsibilities and systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns”.
5. Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.
The standard for Change is “employees indicate that the organisation engages them frequently when undergoing an organisational change, and systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns”.
6. Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
The standard for Relationships is “employees indicate that they are not subjected to unacceptable behaviours, e.g. bullying at work, and systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns”.
What to do about workplace stress
It is important to remember that it is the way we think, feel and behave in response to pressure that determines whether it turns into stress. The human body is an amazing thing. It can take an incredible amount of abuse and still keep going. But it wasn’t designed to run on empty and, just like a car, will eventually break down if not properly serviced and taken care of.
Ensuring these 6 key areas are assessed and managed correctly will help to avoid work-related stress and resultant health issues for employees.
It’s an employer’s duty to protect their staff from stress at work
Work-related stress is a recognised health hazard. It can cause both physical and psychological ill-health and is estimated to cost Scottish employers £2 billion a year through sickness absence, presenteeism and staff turnover. (According to The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH 2011).)
If that kind of bill isn’t enough to take good health and wellbeing seriously, it’s probably worth pointing out that employers also have a legal responsibility to protect employees from stress at work.
Under the Health & Safety at Work Act, an employer must assess the risk of their work practices causing stress-related ill health and is required to take the necessary action. Employers failing to take their duty seriously can find themselves at serious risk of expensive legal claims.
How does your organisation measure up?
Developing a wellbeing strategy starts with reviewing the current situation and truly understanding how much pressure your people are under – looking closely, with fresh eyes, at these 6 key areas of work to create a work environment where people can thrive.
- How do you deal with stress in the workplace?
- What are your favourite methods for managing mental wellbeing?
- What have been your biggest successes and challenges when it comes to work/life balance?
If you would like help to develop a wellbeing strategy for your organisation, please get in touch with Fiona at More Than Motivation. As a member of the International Stress Management Association and holder of a CPCAB accredited Level 5 Diploma in Mental Health & Wellbeing Awareness, I can help you carry out a stress risk assessment, develop a wellbeing strategy and deliver wellbeing awareness training that will help protect your employees and improve your bottom line.