Too stressed to work: what should employers do?

Too stressed to work: what should employers do?

By Gaby Grammeno on 11 April 2018
Some of our employees are too stressed to attend work. How do we deal with this issue?

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Q We have several workers off on extended sick leave, with medical certificates claiming work stress. We’re not sure about the justification for these claims, as we think there might be some personality and domestic problems affecting the individuals concerned. What are our responsibilities here?
A Work stress is certainly a difficult issue, and it’s true that all sorts of factors can interact to compound the psychological stress on an individual. These can include personal, financial and family matters as well as work-related influences such as work overload, job insecurity, changing technology, role ambiguity and interpersonal conflict with colleagues or supervisors.

It’s also true that different personalities have a different level of tolerance for workplace stresses – what is challenging and stimulating for one person can be distressing for another.

Nevertheless, employers’ duty of care means they are obliged to manage risks to workers’ psychological wellbeing, as well as risks to their physical health and safety at work.

It also makes good business sense to minimise work stress and prevent stress-related sick leave from escalating into a workers’ compensation claim. Stress claims often involve a lot of time of work and have other costs such as staff replacement and training, workflow interference, special supervision and management time dealing with grievances, making it a very costly problem for employers.

With regard to work stress, there are two aspects to an employer’s responsibilities: prevention, and support. 

Identifying and assessing the risks

Creating workplace conditions that do not tax people beyond their capacity to cope starts with identifying sources of workplace stress and assessing the level of risk. Practical steps can then be taken to alleviate or minimise harmful stressors, to the extent that is reasonably practicable. Of course, it is not always possible to eliminate stressful aspects of the job, particularly in circumstances that are inherently threatening for workers – for example, if an organisation is downsizing and some jobs will have to go.
Two-way communication is at the heart of risk identification when it comes to stress. This is not straightforward, as many people will baulk at saying what the problem is, especially if they fear challenges to their competence, mockery or disbelief if they admit that work-related anxiety, pressure or conflict are major problems for them.

Men can sometimes be particularly reluctant to admit they have a problem. But without recognition and intervention, the situation may have worse outcomes – for example, in the Australian construction industry, research has indicated that men are six times more likely to die from suicide than from work accidents.

Anonymous surveys may be useful in some situations, as they can help to highlight particular issues, for example, where certain managers have an oppressive style of dealing with staff, or certain employees are a constant source of frustration and exasperation to their workmates, or where management generally believe they are doing a good job but the workers have a different opinion.

When considering sources of work stress, look for factors such as work intensification, job insecurity, workload, conflict with others, fatigue, bullying, information overload, lack of assistance from supervisors, work-life balance, performance monitoring, fear of making mistakes, time pressure, resource issues and any other factors relevant to the nature of the work. For example, in some healthcare or personal assistance jobs, the threat of violence from clients or their relatives may be an issue.
Remember that stress arises from an individual’s response to a situation, rather than what management may regard as justified. For a particular employee, even if there is a personal or domestic foundation for the stress, this does not release an employer from the obligation to take care not to exacerbate it with additional stresses at work. 
Stress factors are difficult to assess objectively, but it is often possible to gain some insights by putting together the views of employees, supervisors and managers.

Risk control and support for stressed or at-risk individuals

Organisational problems require managerial, not medical, interventions. To rush someone into treatment to help the individual cope can exacerbate the potential for long-term difficulties by obscuring the real problems. The process of identifying and assessing the risks will point to the types of management interventions that may help alleviate the problems. 

Strategies include case-by-case interventions with at-risk individuals, particularly if those employees have already taken sick leave citing stress, or are currently on ‘stress leave’. Management should stay in touch with employees currently on leave and look for ways to fix any work-related issues that may have contributed to their decision to take sick leave. Such contacts should not be perfunctory or merely to tick off an obligation, but should seek to strike a rapport with the person and make changes to help the person return to work. 

Risk control can also involve a workplace-wide stress prevention program, including, for example:
  • addressing workload issues
  • training managers in problem-solving strategies 
  • training supervisors to provide more thorough, frequent, individually-tailored job instruction
  • a clear conflict resolution program
  • a system of employee consultation
  • helping struggling individuals with coping strategies – either problem-solving strategies, or palliative emotion-based strategies that attempt to reduce emotional discomfort rather than fixing the source of the discomfort
  • offering attendance at stress management courses or professional counselling
  • provision of an employee assistance program (EAP).
Employees’ confidentiality must be protected in all cases.

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