Stress In the Workplace: See Stress Differently
Phil Austin, CEO, Cigna Europe

Getting the right work-life balance can be tough, especially in the UK where employees work the longest hours in the EU. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that stress in the workplace is at an all-time high.

While it may be easy for an employer to shrug their shoulders and deem stress and mental health as a personal issue, it has a monumental impact on an individual’s performance and productivity at work. Therefore, supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees is vital for a company, and simply cannot be ignored.

The state of stressed out Britain

With as many as eight in 10 people suffering from work-related stress in the UK, it’s safe to say we are in the midst of a stress epidemic, and it’s time employers took action.

Work-related stress, anxiety or depression is estimated to account for over half of all working days lost due to ill health. It causes a company to suffer thanks to a reduced work staff - often whereby the magnitude of the issue is inversely proportional to the size of the company. That means startups and SMEs tend to feel the burn the most.

While women tend to feel more stressed than men (79 per cent women vs 66 per cent men), it is the ‘sandwich’ generation - usually in their late 30s to early 50s - which stress takes its main toll on. Making up more than a quarter of the population in the UK (26 per cent), just under six in 10 report suffering from stress, with 13 per cent finding it ‘unmanageable’. Juggling between bringing up kids, caring for elderly parents and holding down a job, this generation often bears huge responsibilities and with that comes immense stress.

What else causes workplace stress?

While we may think we’re able to leave our personal issues at home, stress in the workplace is often caused by external factors. 78 per cent of women claim to suffer from a lack of sleep causing them to be less productive and thus more stressed at work, while 13 per cent attribute their stress to personal health issues or concerns related to their financial situation.

That said, at Cigna, our global study identified an ‘always-on’ work culture as a key driver of stress across all demographics. Out of the 22 countries and 13,000 people we surveyed, 64 per cent of people around the world work in an ‘always on’ culture which has a major impact on stress, and adversely affects both physical and mental wellbeing. Whilst some countries, such as France, have attempted to curb this by introducing legislation to effectively ban out of hours emails, the UK still has a long way to go to ensure that a 9-5 job does in fact remain within these hours.

In addition to this, The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) identified the following as internal causes for stress in the workplace:

- Staff being overloaded with work, leading them to being unable to cope with the amount of work or type of work they are asked to do
- Staff feeling disillusioned by their lack of involvement in decisions regarding how and when they do their work
- Lack of support from managers and colleagues
- Poor relationships at work with others
- A lack of understanding concerning what is expected of them or how their work fits into the wider objectives of the organisation
- Poorly managed changes and developments within the workplace

How can you tell if your employees are stressed out?

Employers can make a real difference in supporting their employees who suffer from stress, so it’s important to be able to recognise the telltale signs and symptoms of the mental health issue.

Our survey showed that moodiness (40 per cent) and fatigue (23 per cent) were two of the top indicators. Crying and poor work performance are also signals - given the poor work-life balance amongst many UK employees. Stressed out employees also tend to be less engaged, motivated and consequently less productive at work.

We’ve outlined some practical tips below on the ABCDE’s of stress, to help educate you on how to identify signs and symptoms of stress in the workplace further.

● Antisocial – social withdrawal, such as distancing themselves from colleagues
● Behaviour – erratic behaviour with extreme highs and lows or strong feelings of anger, often unexplained
● Concentration – confused thinking and feelings of disorientation and missed deadlines
● Drugs and alcohol abuse – where anxiety may signal substance or alcohol dependency
● Emotional and physical impact – extreme sadness, worry or tearfulness, or unexplained aches and pains

What can employers do to help?

Despite mental health awareness being at an all-time high in the UK, alarmingly only just over a quarter (28 per cent) of UK employers have a formal wellness programme in place to support employees. This may help explain why only a small percentage of people suffering from stress seek professional help.

Looking more broadly across the globe, our research shows that employers are not addressing wellness concerns sufficiently and often have a one-size-fits-all mindset when it comes to stress management and workplace wellness programmes. One of the key difficulties is that every employee will experience and cope with stress in a different way. There is also a definite trend with senior management lacking commitment and not perceived to be in full support of workplace wellness.

Creating a well-run wellness programme instigates positive change in the workplace as it supports open dialogue. Implementing a wellness programme effectively requires a detailed understanding of key stress drivers inside and outside of the workplace. As our research shows, each demographic experiences stress triggers differently and employers need to be able to formulate and adapt their approach to make it work for everyone.

This will not only improve peoples’ access to proper medical support but significantly boost the health, wellbeing and peace of mind of every employee. At Cigna, for example, customers can self-refer for support relating to any type of mental health concern. They simply call the team and, where appropriate, are fast-tracked to treatment. This early intervention can prevent emotional wellbeing issues from getting worse, reduce the cost of treatment and help them return to work quickly and minimise impact to the company.

Ensure that as an employer, you create a caring and more open culture. Simply having a conversation about what’s going on in peoples lives can ease the burden of stress and is often the best and easiest step to tackling the problem. Where possible, employees should tell HR teams if they suspect someone is suffering from stress and/or encourage their workmate to get help. It would also be helpful to ensure they have information at hand such as helpline numbers and web links.

We live in a technology-driven world, and it’s no different in the private healthcare sector, where digital technologies are transforming and re-shaping the future of care, diagnosis and access. Platforms and apps such as Cigna Virtual Heath have extended the range of health and wellbeing tools to include services such as CBT to help people better manage stress and build life skills. Digital capabilities are continually evolving and increasingly play a crucial role in any best-in-class, modern health and wellbeing programme to help identify and manage workplace stress.

What are the benefits to the employer?

The benefit of implementing a wellness programme, for example, extends far beyond looking after your most important asset – your team. Your company will be more attractive to top talent, boost employee retention, and crucially, improve morale. This will not only create a competitive edge, but also set your business up to create a more nurturing and caring culture to the benefit of everyone.

Ultimately, any business in the UK that hasn’t set up a wellbeing programme will be far more likely to experience higher rates of stress-related sickness and decreased staff morale. With the obvious knock-on consequences to motivation, engagement and productivity, it is imperative that businesses do all they can to support their workers and to help them thrive and be as productive as possible.

Make a change

Many employees can be reluctant to talk about stress at work. There is still a stigma attached to stress and people still think they will be seen as weak if they admit they are struggling. But stress is not a weakness, and can affect anyone at any level of an organisation. It is therefore important that an employer takes the relevant steps to tackle the work-related causes of stress in its organisation and encourage staff to seek help at the earliest opportunity if they begin to experience stress.

Every company has the responsibility and duty of care for its workers to create a culture that helps, not hinders employees. Cigna can help with this, by improving your employees health, wellbeing and peace of mind. Cigna’s new white paper - Building a Whole Person Health Approach to Chronic Stress at Work - looks at how to adopt a more open approach to healthcare that addresses the physical and mental wellbeing of your employees.

You can get access to advanced research and practical tips by downloading the whitepaper here, so that you and your employees can better understand and manage stress.