November 11, 2020
Stress Awarenesses Day is celebrated in November, so we thought we would take a really good look at what stress is, why we have it, and what we can do to manage it.
What is stress?
There are many definitions – it is commonly thought to be a mental health condition so it may surprise you to learn that it is actually a physical condition.
“Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.” (stress.ork.uk, 2020)
Stress is necessary for our bodies to get motivated to respond to situations that we are in. The release of hormones gives us a boost of energy and focusses our mind on a particular task in the moment. E.g. if a bus comes around the corner just as you have stepped out into the road, you will ‘feel’ the immediate release of hormones and you will step back without having to consciously think through your next move. Humans need stress to keep safe; but there is a safe level of stress that once exceeded, has the potential to lead to cognitive, emotional and physical ill health resulting in a change in behaviour as the person looks for ways to cope. If the factors that are causing the increase in stress are not managed, ill health can become long-term and have a significant detrimental impact on the person’s ability to fully participate in normal life activities such as work and can cause permanent and irreparable damage to relationships with others and cause other long-term mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
What causes stress?
There are so many factors and general life experiences that can lead to an increase in stress. Importantly, every person is different, and each experience can be coped with at varying degrees of success by the same person at different times in their life. Stress can be caused by a sudden change in personal circumstances such as moving home, divorce or the death of a loved one. Or can be caused by a gradual build up of a situation that becomes overwhelming over time such as a poor relationship with somebody, needing to care for somebody that has a chronic illness or an increase in workload at work that hasn’t been managed well. When the person experiences a saturation point, the body will start to respond negatively and this will then lead to the emotional, physical and cognitive changes mentioned above.
Stress at work
As an HR Consultant I am often asked if stress is a disability under the Equality Act 2010. An employee may have been signed off work with stress and understandably there is some concern over how this absence should be managed and if the employer’s duty to consider reasonable adjustments has been triggered. Stress itself is not a disability. The question should not be, ‘is stress a disability’ the real question should be ‘what is the impact of stress on this person – and is the impact a disability?’
This is a very complex issue so let me illustrate this.
An employee is suffering with stress and is unable to cope with normal life including work so has been signed off sick. The reason the person has become stressed is that they have mounting debts and are being hounded by debt collectors. The stress is the body’s physical response to the experience of not being able to get on top of the money problems. As this has been going on for a long time and is getting worse each month that passes, the body is unable to naturally cope with the increased levels of hormones released every time the phone rings and is now unable to cope with tasks that would ordinarily be OK. Cognitive signs of stress are things such as memory problems and an inability to concentrate. Emotional signs include anxiety, depression, irritability and feeling overwhelmed. Some physical signs might include high blood pressure or chest pain. As a result, the employee is not sleeping well, may be drinking or smoking more than normal and is withdrawn. None of these ‘symptoms’ will ordinarily be a disability. However, if, for example, anxiety or depression becomes a long term condition that has an adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day to day duties (such as going to work) then the symptom will be regarded as a disability.
Employers have a legal obligation to consider reasonable adjustments when managing an employee’s absence which is due to a disability. HR should seek appropriate advice about how to do this – ACAS has some information available that can help.
How can HR support employees with stress?
HR and business leaders cannot always manage and control stress as the factors causing stress may be present in the individual’s personal life and not in the workplace. However, being impartial, HR and Line Managers in particular, can identify any changes in behaviour that can lead to supportive conversations taking place and an employee opening up about what is going on for them in their life. Organisations that provide mental health support can make a real difference, potentially getting them the help that they need which can avoid long and costly absences as well as improving the health and wellbeing of the individual.
In the work place, all businesses have a legal duty to manage stress so there is a common starting point for HR to ensure that the management team has put into place effective Stress Risk Assessments to identify potential causes of work related stress and control measures to minimise the risk.
According to Bupa the most common causes of work-related stress are:
- an excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines
- regularly being under pressure to meet targets or deadlines
- difficult relationships with colleagues, or bullying at work
- management style
- a lack of control over the way you do your job
- being unclear about your job role and what you’re meant to do
- being in the wrong job for your skills, abilities and expectations
HR policy and practice should be well considered with stress and employee wellbeing at the heart of them. Role evaluation, clear job descriptions and well trained, supportive managers are essential to achieving high engagement and the best productivity from all staff. Business leaders will have competing priorities when it comes to investing in staff so HR should be presenting an evidence-based argument to leverage total reward approaches that include support such as access to EAP services and the training of Mental Health First Aiders. There are many case studies available to demonstrate how investing in staff can improve the bottom line so measures should not be seen as a cost – but as an investment. And the return on investment, as well as simply being the right thing to do for everyone, can also be an improved profit line.