Mitigating stress in the workplace

Tina Chander is a partner at Wright Hassall
Tina Chander is a partner at Wright Hassall

The coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly increased anxiety levels for most people, but workplace stress remains an issue for many, even if that workplace is still a makeshift home office. Here, Tina Chander, a partner at Wright Hassall discusses more

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, anxiety levels have increased, and although remote working has become the new normal for most organisations, workplace stress remains an issue for many.

In a bid to combat this increase, Public Health England and other mental health charities have extended their support services, offering advice to those affected by recent events.

From an employer’s perspective, it’s crucial that they address the issue of workplace stress, as they have a duty of care towards their workforce and could face personal injury claims if they fail to offer the necessary support. Not only this, but research shows that stressed workers are a lot less productive than those who aren’t.

Impact on mental health
Key triggers identified for work-related stress include workload pressures, workplace interpersonal relationships and changes at work. Given the current economic disruption, job insecurity and social distancing, these factors are likely to be amplified.
Whilst many businesses are struggling with loss of trade and furloughed staff, many others are under enormous pressure to rapidly increase the volume of their services, food production, supply chain logistics, etc., whilst coping with a large influx of new, untrained workers.

Under these circumstances, it can be tempting to ignore the stress issue and concentrate on core activities, but the impact on the workforce can be so severe that businesses should consider some relatively simple steps.

Risk assessment
Undertake a ‘stress risk assessment’, which will achieve two things:
• It will enable businesses to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress
• It will demonstrate the steps the business took to minimise their impact.

Given the unprecedented scale of upheaval, any existing risk assessment may not be fit for purpose, so performing a new assessment will demonstrate a responsive and flexible attitude toward protecting the workforce.

Many employers may have completed risk assessments during the first lockdown, however, conducting a new and updated risk assessment will ensure that employers are able to adapt to new challenges which may have arisen.

A new risk assessment should seek to address potential problems such as whether the workforce has adequate space to work, whether they have any concerns arising out of lone-working or whether there are any potential new risks caused by working from home.

By identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them, a business can demonstrate at any later date, that it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care.

Company policies
Businesses may implement the following policies: Coronavirus Policy, Flexible Working Policy, and a Homeworking Policy. In addition to this, businesses may wish to consider implementing a Stress at Work Policy, which can provide guidance to employees on how to handle stress at work and seek support from their employer. This can also include details of support services, if necessary.

Not only will this protect the business by implementing procedural changes and providing guidance for the workforce, but it will also provide a level of comfort to the workforce who will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the crisis.

It also demonstrates the business is paying attention to the needs of its employees and is committed to their health and wellbeing.

Communication
During an extended period of homeworking, it’s crucial that lines of communication are established, so that employees can access support when needed. NHS guidance also suggests that connecting with people is an effective way of reducing stress.

Employees should feel comfortable about sharing their anxieties with others and managers should familiarise themselves with the signs and symptoms of workplace stress, so they can spot issues early on.

Businesses should keep in touch with employees through regular telephone and conference calls, whilst scheduling virtual meetings can help people adjust to remote working.
Dedicating a member of the HR team to different sectors of the business can help by providing employees a direct point of contact should they want to discuss work-related stress.

If claims concerning COVID-19 related stress emerge, the businesses in the strongest position will be those that can demonstrate they took the issue seriously, whilst pointing to a recorded risk assessment and structured engagement with employees throughout.