The perils of workplace stress

Some degree of stress is natural and even beneficial: it keeps us on task, helps us determine what our priorities are, and contributes to a healthy sense of motivation. However, it’s all too easy for stress to get out of hand. If the demands of our work exceed our abilities or were subjected to external factors like bullying, performance management, or workplace conflict, stress can quickly become overwhelming: and, when that happens, it’s not beneficial at all.

Unfortunately, the consensus among Australia’s mental health authorities is that workplace stress is all too common. While 91 percent of Australian employees believe that mental health in the workplace is important, only 52 percent agree that their own workplace is conducive to mental health.[1]

As a result, 7,140 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions each year, with 92 percent of those claims attributed to stress and anxiety.[2] The prevalence of workplace stress is associated with high rates of absenteeism, reduced productivity, and a diminished sense of wellbeing even among employees who don’t take time off or seek compensation. Indeed, research by PwC has shown that every dollar spent creating a mentally healthy workplace generates, on average, a positive return on investment of 2.3 dollars.[3]

Both employers and employees, therefore, stand to benefit from cultivating environments that promote positive mental health. In the meantime, the good news on this score is that there are several evidence-based strategies that will allow business leaders to do just that. In this article, we’ll cover what they are and how you can put them into practice.

Five ways to prevent or manage workplace stress

1. Raise awareness of mental health

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to combat workplace stress is raise awareness in your workplace of what good mental health is and why it’s so important. You can do this by educating yourself and sharing what you learn with colleagues and employees. A great place to start is with the free online modules developed by beyondblue to help workers understand mental health and identify opportunities to promote it in the workplace.

2. Identify risk factors

There are many reasons why work might cause your colleagues or employees to experience stress. As a business leader, you’re well-positioned to identify obvious risk factors and work to address them. These risk factors include:

  • Poor environmental conditions
  • High staff turnover
  • Inadequate communication between managers and employees
  • Work-related harassment or bullying
  • Sustained high pressure or unmanageable workloads
  • Lack of support for employees

When evaluating how your business measures up, it’s important to adopt an impartial position, allowing colleagues and employees to share their views in a non-judgemental and open setting. You can also look out for tell-tale signs that employees are overworked or stressed. Ask yourself:

  • Do your employees frequently skip or shorten lunch to get work done?
  • Do your employees often stay back late or take work home?
  • Do your employees submit work that seems rushed or below standard?
  • Do your employees seem edgy, irritable, fatigued, or anxious?

If you require tips on how to manage the above issues, you’ll find a wealth of resources on the Safe Work Australia website.

3. Encourage respectful behaviour and take a strong stance against bullying

According to Safe Work Australia, workplace bullying is second only to ‘high pressure’ as a cause of workplace stress. Unfortunately, workplace bullying disproportionately affects women, people from ethnic minorities, members of the LGBT+ community, and those with physical disabilities. However, it’s important to note that bullying can be perpetrated by, and against, anyone.

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines workplace bullying as “verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer (or manager), another person or group of people at work.” It’s important that you make it clear that any such behaviour is unacceptable in your workplace; implement a safe process for handling complaints and resolving disputes; and adopt a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, discrimination, and harassment.  For additional advice on how to do this, see Safe Work Australia’s Guide for preventing and responding to workplace bullying.

4. Create a supportive environment

You can help to prevent and reduce stress by fostering an environment characterised by practical assistance, clear communication, positive feedback, and emotional support:

  • Practical assistance: Encourage the use of personal leave where necessary if employees are stressed. Give employees the opportunity to determine the pace and order of their tasks and respond flexibly if they start to feel overwhelmed.
  • Clear communication: Ensure employees know who they can talk to if they need to discuss their concerns, workload, or other challenges. Share a clear communication policy and make it clear that employees can ‘switch off’ when they’re not at work.
  • Positive feedback: Provide regular feedback that recognises achievements and adopts a constructive stance towards areas of improvements. Offer opportunities for employees to provide their own feedback through staff meetings or performance reviews.
  • Emotional support: Take an interest in employees’ lives while respecting their privacy. If they’re stressed, provide them with appropriate resources. For more tips, see Supporting someone at work.

5. Lead by example

If you’re in the office at the crack of dawn every morning and don’t leave your desk until nightfall, there’s a good chance that your employees will feel pressured to do the same. Instead, promote a healthy work-life balance by committing to reasonable hours, taking lunch breaks, and maintaining interests outside of work.