THE BLOG

The Quest Against Stress

04/06/2014 16:31 BST | Updated 04/08/2014 10:59 BST

Once upon a time, there was a workplace where stress threatened to take over productivity and happiness. It was the brave business leader's mission to battle the stigma of mental health at work and cut stress down to size.

Stress is an indiscriminate beast, with the potential to affect anyone, regardless of seniority. According to our research, 73% of managing directors are currently going through a period of stress, with 29% having felt stressed for a year or more.

Of course, not all stress is unhealthy, but the strain of excessive or prolonged pressure can lead to serious health problems, including mental health issues. While people may feel at ease discussing physical health issues such as back pain, there is still a real and worrying stigma attached to mental illness at work that needs to be overcome.

Pulling up the drawbridge

Eliminating stress and maintaining good mental health doesn't happen by magic: it requires the care and attention of the whole workplace and a caring and committed leadership team. Left unacknowledged and unattended stress can have a detrimental effect on an organisation's productivity and profitability.

Barclays executive Hector Sants' resignation at the end of last year highlights the dangers and impact that a demanding job can have. In order to tackle the 'mental health taboo', leaders must lead by example. Stress needs to be a boardroom issue that trickles down from the very top all the way through the organisation.

When employees feel a higher level of physical and mental wellbeing, organisations benefit from a significant uplift in productivity - as much as £6billion to the UK economy according to a study we released last year with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr). With so much riding on wellbeing, it should be a leaders imperative to put clear management initiatives in place that support it. It's also important to remember that people in leadership positions have a responsibility to lead by example: the better they are at managing their own stress, the more positively they will affect those around them.

Communication is king

Effective two-way communication plays a key role in creating a healthy workforce. Leaders should aim for good interaction between all levels of the organisation, between all stakeholders, departments, managers and workers, and between colleagues.

They must demonstrate that stress is not a weakness by encouraging regular face-to-face contact with employees. These meetings with line managers should address workload, stress-levels and any other problems they may be dealing with.

Leaders need to ensure the people in their organisation have confidential access to treatment for mental health conditions. Employers must encourage their people to seek help if they need it, without fear of any consequences at work.

When the clock strikes five

We wouldn't train for a marathon for 12 hours a day as we know it's not physically good for us, so why do we do this to our brains? With the majority of people spending more time at work than with their family and friends, it is important for a worker's mindset that the right balance is created between work and life.

In France, one trade union recently backed almost 300,000 workers in their right to 'switch off' from work after 6pm and not check emails or answer phone calls if they chose not to. While this might not always be realistic here, make it clear to your employees that choosing to leave on time where possible won't make them look like a pumpkin when it comes to promotions. Productivity in the workplace can, after all only be sustained for so long.

Long working hours are unavoidable from time to time, but employees must be enabled to manage this through making time to de-stress and re-energise. Resilience training may be helpful - but this doesn't give the employer a licence to pile more stress on top of people.

Advances in communications technology and increased international work have ultimately led to a higher expectation in terms of speed of response. The risk with this is that work extends into every waking hour of the day, never allowing workers to fully switch off. Client expectations need to be set from the outset, ensuring out-of-hours work is kept to a minimum for all employees this may affect. Leaders must also adhere to these boundaries where possible, keeping communication with employees within work hours so as not to impose extra stress.

Beginning your happily ever after

By changing the way you approach stress, workers will see the concern, commitment and value for their wellbeing. Early detection of mental health issues means action can be taken before the pressures become overwhelming. Leaders must remain vigilant with their workforce and show a real interest in their wellbeing. Those that do will not only reap a healthy, happy and productive workforce, but a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

For more information on how to lead a healthy, happy workforce, please visit www.bupa.co.uk