Management commitment to tackle work-related stress is essential. Without this it's virtually impossible to create the right culture to prevent and manage work-related stress effectively.
As well as buy-in from the board, this commitment needs to come from senior management in areas including human resources and health and safety. Doing this helps to ensure it's taken seriously and a working environment is created where employees feel they are able to speak up and access support.
Time to engage
There are plenty of reasons why organisations don't foster this commitment. Size can make a difference, with larger companies more likely to be able to access resources to support interventions.
The more proactive approach taken by larger employers could also be a direct response to receiving a greater number of cases of work-related stress. This is highlighted in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's 2016 Absence management survey (1) where the percentage of respondents seeing more common mental health problems being reported increased in line with the size of the organisation.
A high quality of general occupational health and safety management can also help to push stress up the agenda. For example, the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks found that organisations with a strong culture of occupational health were nearly three times as likely to have procedures in place to tackle work-related stress than those without (2).
Enablers for change
While senior management must recognise work-related stress and support initiatives to tackle it, line managers are the real enablers for change. Employees will usually turn to their line manager for support in the first instance and they can also play an important part in understanding and controlling the sources of work-related stress such as workload and employee control over their work.
Providing them with the necessary skills to support staff is essential. The way in which an organisation responds to an employee experiencing work-related stress is significant. Fail to respond appropriately and there is a risk it will make the situation worse.
Unfortunately, as many line managers may have been promoted on the basis of their ability to do their previous job, they won't necessarily have the soft skills necessary for people management.
Providing training can help develop these skills and it is sensible for an organisation committed to tackling work-related stress to provide all of its line managers with stress management training such as mental health first aid. This will enable them to identify the signs and symptoms of employees struggling with work-related stress. In addition, and critically, it will give them the skills to open up the conversation with an employee.
It's important to note that line managers aren't expected to provide counselling support to these employees. Instead it's much more about recognising when someone is experiencing difficulties and signposting them to the most appropriate support.
As this is such an important part of their role, including a measure of line managers' ability to manage work-related stress in their key performance indicators is worth considering. Although it's contentious, being a people manager is about the management of the team so helping safeguard these individuals from work-related stress should be part of this.
To support employers wishing to ensure line managers have the right skills to manage stress, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched a series of tools. Developed in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Investors in People, the Line Manager Competency Indicator Tool (3) enables managers to assess whether they have the behaviours identified as effective for preventing and reducing stress in the workplace. They include a self-assessment tool, a 180º tool requiring input from their staff, and a 360º tool which allows input from staff, senior managers and peers.
As well as ensuring line managers have the necessary skills to identify and manage stress in the workplace, it's also important to have the right interventions in place. Rather than a tick-box exercise, organisations must assess the effectiveness of interventions to ensure that work-related stress is prevented and managed wherever possible.
As an example, the inclusion of free employee assistance programme (EAPs) on many group risk and medical insurance products means they're commonplace now. However, they're not a panacea for work-related stress with more complex cases needing other forms of intervention.
A more effective solution, and one we're seeing many of the medical insurers introducing, is a mental health navigation system. With these employees call a helpline where they can be triaged by a medical professional to the most appropriate service. An EAP could be one of the options but so could cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy or a psychiatrist.
Similarly, private medical insurance may not be delivering in the way it should. Designed to dovetail with the NHS, it can add real value when access to treatment is poor, for instance mental health. However, although this probably makes it one of the most valuable benefits on a plan, some employers have chopped out psychiatric cover to control costs. It is worth taking a look at the cover you have and considering whether it helps to meet the organisation's broader people objectives.
But whether it's training line managers or ensuring you have the right benefits on your medical insurance, having management commitment is key to tackling work-related stress.