Tackling stress in the tech workplace

It’s Stress Awareness Month, and on both sides of the Severn Bridge, mental health organisations are raising awareness about the need to tackle stress. This side of the bridge, changes are starting to happen, with a new mental health facility opening up in Cardiff in March and The Mental Health Today Wales 2016 conference and exhibition due to place at the Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff on May 18th 2016.

However, stress is still a major issue for employers and more needs to be done to combat it. Our Bridgend-based software company has been helping some of the biggest businesses in the UK manage absence challenges for over 10 years. We know through experience that stress absence is a huge, and rising problem, and we’ve helped blue chip businesses manage it better.

In a climate where every single aspect of our working lives is now driven by the need to cut costs and achieve more on a lower budget, often with fewer staff, it’s hardly surprising that stress is on the increase. Welsh businesses may have survived a painful recession, and the loss of our mining heritage, but the scars are visible. The ever present spectres of financial worries and looming job cuts continue to haunt the region, especially with the recent developments in steel.

For the past two years, stress has been cited as the top reason for long-term sick leave, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), with most businesses reporting a rise in staff stress levels.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research has suggested the cost of work related stress to the economy is £6.5 bn – and even more so in the public sector (where sickness absence is in general 50% higher).

However, absence is only part of the problem. Stressed employees are also less productive, and when productivity is taken into account, a recent study by Vitality Health found that employees in the transport industry lost almost 27 days per year due to stress (iv).

It doesn’t have to be like this. Our people deserve to live a stress free life.

With workplaces seemingly getting ever more stressful, it’s important companies can manage and recognise the symptoms of stress, and have measures in place to deal it before it impacts their productivity and profits.

Here are some practical steps welsh employers can take to reduce stress in the workplace:

  • Implement a strategic absence management system instead of out of date paper forms and spreadsheets, to monitor absence trends and spot stress patterns of absence early on.
  • Instigate non-judgemental return to work interviews when staff are off. Most employees will not admit to mental health absence unless asked, so a return to work interview is an opportunity to talk about any issues or feelings of stress, as well as your chance to spot potential areas of concern.
  • Discourage workers from reading work emails and don’t contact them when on holiday. Statutory leave is in place to enable employees to take a rest.
  • Enrol managers and team leaders on a training course for recognising and managing stress in their people.
  • Create a positive culture towards mental health issues. The ‘Man Up’ approach is unhelpful.
  • Improve employee engagement. This could be as simple as cakes to say thank everyone for their hard work or a monthly team outing.
  • Adopt a positive style of management. Regularly praise and recognise people’s achievements, and encourage employees to suggest new ideas.
  • Introduce a flexible working policy. Government guidelines introduced over a year ago give all employees the right to request flexible working hours. A Regus study found that 70% of employees believed that flexible working would help reduce stress, and repeated studies have shown that home workers are more productive.
  • For those staff returning to work after a period of stress, ensure that you put in place a manageable return to work plan.  Consult external help if needed.
  • Stress awareness month is great for raising awareness, sadly unless we take drastic action, a single month of awareness will do little to ease the pain of stress for workers in Wales.

Adrian Lewis is the commercial director for welsh software developers Codel Softwareand has been advising businesses on how software can best manage HR challenges for more than 10 years. 

Image credit: Dylan Tweney