This article is part of our collection on Leadership and Management
Workplace stress can be caused by a plethora of factors, but if SMEs take a proactive approach to combat this issue, they can prevent or minimise the negative effects on staff.
Last updated: 10 Oct 2019 6 min read
The effects of stress are far-reaching. Although most companies say people are their greatest asset, numerous employees suffer from stress, compromising their health and productivity.
A survey carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2016/17 revealed that 526,000 people in the UK were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Despite its prevalence, however, legal services firm Acas says that “there is still a stigma attached to stress and people still think they’ll be seen as weak if they admit they’re struggling”.
So what exactly is stress? The HSE defines it as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. These tend to be caused by six factors: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.
The psychological impact of stress can lead to conditions such as anxiety and depression – these can increase the risk of heart disease, back pain, gastrointestinal illnesses and skin conditions, according to Acas. The 2017 Labour Force Survey reported that stress is the leading cause of work-related illness, says Sadie Hopson, founder of We Work Well, which provides a training solution for mental well-being in the workplace.
“This can be crippling for smaller businesses, where staff absence and ill health can be particularly costly and have a significant impact on the bottom line,” she says. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) estimates that mental health issues cost UK employers £34.9bn a year through reduced productivity, sickness absence and staff turnover.
Hopson urges businesses to put a mental health policy in place and to undertake a stress risk assessment, but it’s worth noting that, regardless of a firm’s attitude, all employers have a legal duty to carry out risk assessments.
Where a business is too small to warrant hiring a full-time HR manager, contracting a HR consultant can help, suggests Keith Bevan, sales and marketing director of professional services company Suresite.
“Despite only employing 49 people, we decided that a HR manager was an essential part of our organisation,” he says. “They have proved to be an open door for our teams to speak with, raise concerns and put forward ideas about how to improve our business.”
SME owners can be stressed from having to manage every part of the business, from keeping employees happy to service delivery and quality – and lack of sleep and long hours can make things seem worse, says Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of virtual assistant platform Time Etc.
“Staff may be stressed because of the autonomy they get from working for a small business,” he says. “They’re often expected to work out how to do things that are outside their experience or remit, and without training. Younger employees in particular crave responsibility, but they also want to feel safe and supported in their working environment.”
When Lashbrooke noticed that some of his youngest employees were struggling to cope with stressful situations that older workers were taking in their stride – such as tight deadlines and customer service issues – he spoke to them, opened up about his own stress and anxiety, and let them know they were supported by the whole team. This turned the situation around, he says.
“Stress is a complex and nebulous concept at best, and how it manifests itself varies from organisation to organisation and team to team”Dr David Cliff, business coach and mentor, Gedanken
Small teams can be close; many people in SMEs talk about a sense of belonging and sometimes compare work to being in a family, says Vicki Field, HR director at private GP business London Doctors Clinic.
“However, the smaller teams can lead to friction in relationships, which can be difficult to manage,” she says. “The lines between friends and colleagues can become blurred – behaviours which may be appropriate with friends in the pub are not appropriate at work.”
She says all companies need policies that state their commitment to providing a workplace free of bullying and harassment, including a disciplinary policy and codes of conduct, with informal or formal meetings held if behaviour is unacceptable.
It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that there’s no single method of addressing stress. Dr David Cliff, business coach and mentor at Gedanken, says: “Stress is a complex and nebulous concept at best, and how it manifests itself varies from organisation to organisation and team to team.
“There’s no off-the-shelf solution for producing a mental health policy, for example, which may be why staff welfare and organisational productivity are compromised in the majority of organisations, given that only 14% of companies have a coherent mental health policy, as identified in a recent Institute of Directors survey.”
Stress can be an opportunity for growth and development, he says, if support such as training, mentoring, coaching and secondments is provided.
And savvy SMEs that combine an analytical approach with easy access to treatment and a focus on stress prevention can establish themselves as employers of choice, says Mike Blake, well-being lead at brokerage and advisory firm Willis Towers Watson.
Ways to reduce workplace stress
The HSE provides simple risk assessment templates. If an assessment identifies areas of poor performance, employers should work with staff to agree ways to tackle these. Introduce a mental health policy as well.
Acas recommends that employers encourage staff to seek help as soon as they begin to experience stress: openness is essential. Keith Bevan says the distance between directors and other staff must “never be more than a few steps”. If leaders are open about their vulnerabilities, other staff will be, too.
Gemma Spinks, director of technology public relations agency Neo PR, says her company openly discusses stress and its effects. Employees set goals for the month on reducing stress, and rank themselves weekly. They hold group discussions, meditation sessions and lunchtime walks.
MHFA runs courses to teach colleagues to listen, reassure and respond and potentially prevent a crisis. Free toolkits are available online. Lashbrooke suggests holding workshops, recalling one successful session with an improvisation coach, who helped with teamwork, deep listening and communication.
“Solicit opinions and actively listen,” says Bevan. “Foster a culture where people know that everyone’s thoughts count.”
Leadership and Management, Strategy and Planning