Forty per cent of all work-related illnesses are cases of stress, according to the latest statistics from the Labour Force Survey. The people who reported the highest rates of stress were health professionals (in particular, nurses), teaching and educational professionals, and caring personal services (in particular, welfare and housing association professionals).
So what should you do as a manager if one of your staff says they are stressed, or if they are acting out of character but don't say anything to you? First, don't ignore it. We have a duty of care to our staff and we are expected to be proactive in talking to them if we notice something is wrong. A bad habit for us managers is to judge what staff tell us by our own yardsticks. We might think they should not be stressed by their workload or the situations they deal with, but we are not inside their skin; there might be issues in their home lives contributing to how stressed they are.
The Health and Safety Executive's definition of stress is "pressure that we feel we cannot cope with", which places it in the realms of the individual response to situations. One person's unbearable pressure (stress) might be another's reasonable workload. Stress also increases as staff work outside their comfort zones, and might be high for new starters in challenging posts.
Sometimes staff tell us they are stressed when they mean they haven't got what they want or are for some reason uncomfortable at work. Again, you might not want to hear this as a manager, but it's a signal that things are not right for that person and need exploring. The HSE has developed a set of management standards that detail good practice in addressing work-related stress. It has the catchy title Management Standards Indicator Tool, and looks cumbersome and old-fashioned, but it provides a starting point for working with someone on their stress levels. There is a checklist that you can get staff to work through when they say they are stressed and can't give you a clear reason for it.
Managers need to notice what is happening to employees in their teams or departments, spotting any patterns of overload and helping employers to address proactively work-related stress. In these days of cuts and pressure on services, some of us might be in danger of creating situations that are untenable because we don't want to let down our service users or clients. But this strategy is not successful in the long term and flies in the face of our duty of care for staff as well as clients. We have to find a happy medium.
Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and that of others who might be affected by their actions. Employees should not suffer in silence but should tell managers if they feel the pressure of the job is putting them, or anyone else, at risk of ill health.
Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant