Stressed out?

The CIPD have just published their recent annual survey on Employee Absence, with a particular focus on stress. How stressed are you? What is your employer doing to help those who have a stress issue? And what can you do to help yourself?

By – Sally Longson

In September 2003, the UK Health and Safety Executive reported that work-related stress is a real problem for employers. Almost 5 million people in the UK - that's one in five - feel 'very' or 'extremely' stressed by their work - they worry they just cannot cope. So it comes as no surprise that this year, in the survey Employee Absence 2004 just published by the CIPD, we read that more than half of employers have seen an increase in stress-related absences in the last 12 months.

So what's going on? The CIPD report that the main causes of stress are workload; management style/relationships at work; and organisational change/restructuring. One of the problems employers have with stress is that it is very difficult to identify; people may exhibit any number of changes in behaviour and performance.

Are you stressed out?

A fact-sheet produced by the CIPD gives examples of signs that show you're really stressed, and here they are:

Work performance
  • Declining/inconsistent performance
  • Uncharacteristic errors
  • Loss of control over work
  • Loss of motivation/commitment
  • Indecision
  • Lapses in memory
  • Increased time at work
  • Lack of holiday planning/usage
  • Crying
  • Arguments
  • Undue sensitivity
  • Irritability/moodiness
  • Over-reaction to problems
  • Personality clashes
  • Sulking
  • Immature behaviour
  • Arriving late to work
  • Leaving early
  • Extended lunches
  • Absenteeism
  • Resigned attitude
  • Reduced social contact
  • Elusiveness/evasiveness
Aggressive behaviour
  • Malicious gossip
  • Criticism of others
  • Vandalism
  • Shouting
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Poor employee relations
  • Temper outbursts
Other behaviours
  • Out of character behaviour
  • Difficulty in relaxing
  • Increased consumption of alcohol
  • Increased smoking
  • Lack of interest in appearance/hygiene
  • Accidents at home or work
  • Reckless driving
  • Unnecessary risk taking
Physical signs
  • Nervous stumbling speech
  • Sweating
  • Tiredness/lethargy
  • Upset stomach/flatulence
  • Tension headaches
  • Hand tremor
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Constantly feeling cold

If you, any of your colleagues or your bosses show a good number of any of these symptoms, it could be that they are under stress (and that may not be due to stress at work. Home life could be causing them grief and hassle too.)

Employers need to do something about stress, because compensation claims relating to stress are on the up. And to make matters worse, there isn't any specific legislation in the UK which deals with it. This means responsible employers will need to be pro-active in managing the stress levels of their employees.

So what are responsible employers doing to tackle the problem?
The good news is that many employers are doing something to alleviate the problem. 77% of the respondents to the CIPD's survey reported taking action. Employers are using a variety of ways to mange stress, such as:

  • Using flexible working options/improved work-life balance;
  • Introducing risk assessments/stress audits;
  • Training their managers and staff.
  • Introducing staff surveys
  • Getting occupational health professionals involved
  • Introducing employee assisted programmes

More importantly, if you're stressed, what are YOU doing to tackle your stress?

First of all, identify the source of your stress. What's at the bottom of the problem? Is it that you need more training to do a job you've been landed with? Do you need to sit down with your boss and have a serious discussion about the problem you're having - perhaps a difficult boss you're trying to handle, or long working hours impinging on family life - and what can be done to solve it?

Look at your colleagues around you. If everybody appears to be stressed, it could be that your department or section is not getting the support it needs. People may gamely hang-on-in-there for a short duration, but eventually, the sheer effort of keeping up will catch up with them. If this is the case with your employer, why not get a couple of you together and meet with the manager to see if some of the work can be re-distributed?

If you're stressed and complain to someone, keep a note of the meeting, the nature of your complaint and how it was handled. Take someone with you, if you feel a supportive colleague by your side would be helpful. If the situation doesn't improve, take the complaint higher or to your human resources department.

Don't forget the importance of helping others out when they are manic and under a real deadline and you have a more relaxed day. This could be as simple as offering to make them a coffee or get them a sandwich. Another time, you'll appreciate their support and understanding.

So what can you do out of the office to help yourself?

  1. Make sure you get time for yourself during the day doing something which relaxes you.

  2. Eat properly and healthily.

  3. Get exercise. Fresh air and exercise can help you sleep more efficiently and be a real energy booster and mind freshener!

  4. Be sensible about the amount you drink. Watch your drinking patterns for a week. Assess when you feel like a drink and why. Consider how much control you have over the amount you drink.

  5. Cut out as much clutter from your life as you can, at home and at work. This includes cutting out anything or anyone who irritates you, drains your energy, or makes you feel down.

  6. Make your work station a pleasurable place to be. Can you bring in fresh flowers once a week, for example?

  7. Be committed to reducing the stress in your life. If you feel guilty about that, and telling your boss you're stressed, remember that the CIPD survey reports that the average of cost of absence stands at ?588 per employee a year. Your boss and employing organisation have a vested interest in keeping you healthy and sane!

  8. Do something fun as often as you can.

  9. Ask people for help when you need it.

  10. Do something that switches you totally off from work, rush and bustle. This may be yoga and meditation; equally it could be trying a new hobby, reading a great novel, starting an adult ed class. Do it because you're interested in it.

But let's not forget…

Finally, in all the problems frequently associated with stress, let's not forget that many people actually thrive on stress. A final test to give yourself to find out if you're really thriving on it is to ask yourself the following question: do you use stress and a frantic pace of life as an excuse to keep running from an issue with your life you don't want to deal with? If you can honestly put your hand on your heart and give a resounding NO! to that question, that's fine. But if it's acting as a trigger to bring something to the surface you know you need to deal with, then get going. Sort it!

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