What is stress awareness month?

Throughout April, everyone from healthcare professionals and academics to business owners and teachers joined forces in order to raise awareness about one of the most pervasive problems facing modern society: stress.

Yes, on April 1st we entered into the 28th annual Stress Awareness Month – an initiative, founded in 1992 by Dr Morton Orman of the Health Resource Network (HRN), which works to help individuals protect themselves against the dangers of stress.

Upon its creation, Stress Awareness Month aimed to tackle growing concerns about rising stress levels and the negative impact of this trend on our mental health. That is, experts consistently reported increased numbers of suicides, greater dependency rates on prescription medications and growing inadequacies of psychological support services.

Now, after nearly three decades and some significant social transformations, these concerns appear to be more prevalent than ever before. New research has provided us with evidence suggesting that struggling with elevated stress levels for a prolonged period of time leaves us vulnerable to serious health complications including cardiovascular diseases, strokes and weakened immune systems.

But, what actually is stress?

In it’s purest form, stress is simply the body’s reaction to something it perceives to be dangerous or threatening. When we feel under attack, our bodies respond by producing a mixture of hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. These prepare us to take physical action by diverting blood away from our core and into our limbs and by temporarily shutting down some less vital bodily functions such as digestion.

But stress is both a physiological and a psychological phenomenon.

Indeed, the Mental Health Foundation defines stress as being “the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable”. This description is suitably broad, given that ‘stress’ as an emotion is profoundly idiosyncratic with no two people reacting to the same stimuli in the same way.

How can employers identify stress in their employees?

Understanding all of this, how can business owners identify when one of their employees is suffering from stress? Firstly, it is important for employers to reflect upon the working practices used by their organisation to establish whether or not they are cultivating a stressful environment.

For example, are employees frequently expected to work within tight deadlines? Or are they constantly competing with their co-workers in order to meet the company’s high expectations? Or perhaps those in certain roles are required to deal emotionally sensitive or high-risk issues on a regular basis? By recognising the factors that could be causing stress, employers will be able to identify anyone whose situation puts them at greater risk.

Secondly, there are a wealth of signs that employers can look out for when trying to identify members of their staff who are struggling with stress. These include:

  • Increased levels of absenteeism;
  • Extroverts becoming introverted;
  • Lower levels of productivity;
  • People being less able to concentrate on tasks;
  • Noticeable changes in a person’s mood;
  • People not taking their full holiday entitlement;
  • Memory problems;
  • Increased indecisiveness;

Dependent on the size and structure of an organisation, it might be impractical for a managing director to independently monitor their entire workforce for these signs. In light of this, it is important to make sure that line managers and department leaders receive the appropriate training to enable them to recognise when a member of their team is not coping.

How can employers help their employees deal with/manage stress?

Regardless of whether it is a result of problems at work or at home, there are many ways in which employers can support an employee who is struggling to manage their stress. Perhaps most importantly, those in positions of senior management should strive to foster a culture of openness in which employees feel comfortable enough to ask for help or advice.

Employees should also be made aware of any relevant resources that are at their disposal, such as medical insurance packages, training sessions or internal support groups.

Additionally, employers can help alleviate stress levels by effectively managing the workloads, hours and deadlines of their staff, thus making sure that they have a healthy work-life balance.

Stress-prevention is better than stress-management…

Ultimately, though, we must not forget that the best way to manage stress is through prevention rather than cure.

Therefore, employers are encouraged to make promoting the wellbeing of their employees a core element of the company’s internal operations. For example, a proactive approach to stress-management might be to invite people to take active breaks away from their desks by offering lunchtime yoga classes, mindfulness sessions or group walks in the fresh air.

Additionally, research shows that those who are better informed about the practical ways in which they can lower their stress levels are far better able to tackle difficult situations with emotional resilience and determination. At Robertson Cooper, we would like to share our 10-step method for reducing stress…

  1. Prioritise your health – make decisions that are going to be of benefit to your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. For example, go alcohol-free a few nights each week or allow yourself to spend time doing a hobby you enjoy.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep (regularly) – research clearly shows that sleep deprivation amplifies the symptoms associated with stress. Adults are advised to get between 7-9 hours of good quality sleep every night.
  3. Practice deep breathing – when our bodies are stressed, the muscles that help us breathe become tighter. By focussing on taking several deep breaths we can quickly and effectively relieve the physical symptoms associated with feeling stressed or anxious.
  4. Drink enough water – being dehydrated (however mildly) causes our cortisol levels to rise. This automatically makes us stressed, even if there is no reason for us to feel as such.
  5. Eat a balanced diet – dieticians stress how certain foods have stress-relieving properties. For example dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants whilst avocados and oily fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids (both of which are proven to help lower anxiety levels).
  6. Exercise regularly – physical activity causes our brains to release mood-improving endorphins which help us to cope with potentially challenging situations.
  7. Adopt a positive mindset – research suggests that making a conscious effort to think positively can help protect us against a whole host of physical and mental issues, including stress.
  8. Manage your time and tasks effectively – by giving ourselves enough time in which to complete a given task, and by making sure that we don’t try and accomplish too many stressful things at once, we can reduce the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed.
  9. Spend less time online – countless studies have found a strong positive correlation between internet usage and stress levels. Spending less time on our computers and phones is a simple way in which we can practice self-care.
  10. Learn to say no – in a culture that demands we take on more and more responsibilities, having the confidence to say “no” will only become more important. This final tip takes us back to the start, in that it reiterates the importance of prioritising our health above unrealistic social pressures.

What are the business benefits brought about by reducing workplace stress?

The benefits of tackling stress within corporate settings are extensive, both for the employees themselves and for the broader performance of the business as a whole. For example, lower stress levels will undoubtedly result in people taking fewer sick days which will improve productivity and performance as a consequence.

Furthermore, exhibiting an internal culture which clearly shows a commitment to safeguarding the health of its workforce will improve employee retention rates and make it easier to attract high-quality job applicants, both of which mean business owners will spend less on recruitment and training.

What is the answer?

Training both staff and managers to effectively deal with stress is essential. Highlighting the key facts surrounding why a certain level of stress is a positive influence on the work environment, and how to manage stress once it begins to adversely affect staff,  can prove to be a critical step in improving wellbeing.

Learn more about our training courses here. 

Or for more information, contact our team on 0161 232 4910 or hi@robertsoncooper.com

Julie Wacker

Julie Wacker

Julie is an Occupational Psychologist who is passionate about helping others have a Good Day at Work. Her role in Robertson Cooper’s team of Business Psychologists requires her to work directly with customers to enable them to create organisational environments which allows people to have more Good Days at Work. She partners with clients to support individuals in building resilience levels, developing managers to ensure their approach creates a positive and enabling environment for their team and at an organisational level to help business leaders understand and influence the wider cultural factors that influence their employees’ health and wellbeing.

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