Dealing with stress at work in 12 practical steps

17th February 2011

Dealing with stress at work in 12 practical steps

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Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. According to the HSE, about 1 in 7 people say that they find their work either very or extremely stressful (Psychosocial working conditions in Britain in 20071). Depression and anxiety are the most common stress-related complaints seen by GPs, affecting 20% of the working population of the UK. A total of nearly 11 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2005/06. How can you deal with it?


Our statistics are even more damning. 1 out of 3 of our individual clients are off sick for work related stress. Almost all of our individual clients raising grievances do it from their sick bed. For employers, receiving work related stress fit notes is also a common source of headache. How can employers tackle work related stress?


Work related stress mostly arises in three types of situation:

  • Bullying
  • Unmanageable work load or work demand
  • Disciplinary procedures


Stress at work will often give rise to claims of:

  • Constructive dismissal
  • Unfair dismissal
  • Discrimination
  • Personal Injury


What should you do about it?

STEP 1: Recruit carefully

Wrong recruitment is very often the source of work related stress. An employee who is not up to the job from the start is inevitably going to experience stress at work.


We often see SMEs recruiting their first employees amongst their friends and acquaintances. While smaller employers are often tempted to save on the cost of a robust recruitment process,  this is often only a short term saving. Unless you have the time and experience to manage your recruitment, the answer may be to use professionals whose job it is to help you identify who you need and find them.


Employers should ensure that they are clear from the start as to what the job entails and the skills and experience necessary to carry out the job.


STEP 2: Use your probationary periods

You will not get every recruitment right. This is why your contract of employment incorporates a probationary period. Keeping the wrong person in the wrong post will lead to work related stress.


STEP 3: Promote carefully to avoid the Peter Principle

The Peter Principle (developed by the sociologist Dr Laurence J Peter), according to which “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”, can very often explain why you received the dreaded work related stress fit note.


The theory goes like this: in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later, they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. I would add at this point, they either experience work related stress themselves, putting time and effort to attempt to solve the unsolvable or more worryingly, they become bullies.


To avoid the Peter Principle, promote carefully. Training and probationary periods in a new position are useful tools that should not be neglected.


You should always appoint people with management skills into management positions. This is often what goes wrong in cases of bullying. For example, rewarding your best sales persons by promoting them to a managerial role is often going to be counterproductive. A good sales persons can often be highly individualistic and workaholic.  They may not have the skills and patience to inspire others to raise to their game. Pay rises and glorious job titles may be the best way to keep your strong performers without giving them managerial responsibility.


STEP 4: review your sickness policy

Whilst most employees signed off sick for work related stress genuinely suffer from stress, we do see the occasional employee taking advantage. Statutory Sick Pay is often the best cure to work related stress induced by an invitation to a disciplinary hearing. The employee suddenly becomes fit to attend the disciplinary hearing when company sick pay runs out and he will need to survive on around £79 per week.


We do see SMEs “borrowing” their contract of employment from larger organisations. Whilst a London Borough may be able to afford to pay six months full salary in case of sickness, a small charity may not have the budget to do so.


STEP 5: offer income protection insurance if you can afford it

When bullying or too much work has led to genuine stress and depression, having insurance dealing with the consequences will be a life saver.


STEP 6: Train, mediate, coach

Human Resources professionals have a number of soft tools available to them. Train your employees, train your managers, use mediation and coaching. There are a number of cost effective government sponsored schemes. Use these.


STEP 7: Reward

Even if you do not have the budget to reward performance with a bonus or pay rise, a thank you does not cost anything and can do a lot to boost self-esteem.


STEP 8: Develop a strong annual review system if you have the time to do so

Annual reviews should help you plan promotions and terminations. The ultimate review system is the 360º review system, where comments are sought from reports, colleagues and managers. For smaller organisations, a yearly meeting to discuss work progress should be the minimum.


Do not use annual reviews if you do not have the time and resources to carry out the exercise properly. It is a fact that criticising an employee’s performance to their face is often very daunting for managers and consequently, nothing is said. You would be surprised at the number of employers who come to us with serious concerns about an employee’s performance even though these concerns were never discussed at the annual review. This creates a risk of work related stress, as the employee will not understand the problem. It will also render their dismissal case difficult to fight.


STEP 9: Use your performance procedure early

If performance problems are serious, do not wait for the annual review to deal with them. Deal with them early. Identify the problem, seek solutions in the form of training and mentoring, terminate the relationship if needed.


STEP 10: Be patient

Even if the stress has been triggered by an invitation to a disciplinary hearing and you suspect that it is not genuine, the doctor’s opinion will prevail over yours. Not everyone is lucky enough to bump into their sick employee at the gym. Even if you do, stress does not prevent people from going to the gym, so don’t jump to conclusions.


STEP 11: Act promptly

In a situation of work related stress induced by disciplinary or grievance hearings, it may not be the right course of action to wait until the employee is fit to work.


The Department for Work and Pensions advises in its Health at Work Handbook, to seek medical advice from the employee’s GP or Occupational Health Specialist on whether the employee is able to engage in the disciplinary or grievance process. You may suggest meeting the employee at or near his or her home. You may suggest widening the right to be accompanied to a family member or friend (this is to be used sparingly, as we are often asked to be an accompanying friend of our clients). You may suggest carrying the exercise in writing only.


The Occupational Health Guidelines recommends a positive answer to this process unless there are serious concerns as to the employee’s mental health.


STEP 12: Have a commercial approach

Even if you have followed our 11 previous steps, you may find yourself in a situation where an employee who is invited to a disciplinary or performance hearing is fighting back with work related stress. Dealing with the process can be time consuming and costly. Even if the allegation is serious and you do not believe that the stress is genuine, you may want to take a commercial approach.


If dealing with the process will take three months, you may be able to strike a termination deal with the employee with an offer of one month. It may feel immoral, but this is the way it goes in business.


Reaching this type of deal should be set out in a compromise agreement. There is no point in reaching a deal and then being sued. If you think you need to go down this road, it is sensible to get support from a skilled employment law specialist, early on in the process.


No problem of this nature is insurmountable but it will be easier for both you and your employee, if it is tackled early and with a plan.



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