Stress: “get used to it” – hints and tips for employers

The employee and her representative sit there citing mental illness, anxiety and panic attacks as the reasons why she has let the employer down yet again. The employer dares to share some of her own personal challenges. What happens next?

The representative immediately jumps down the employer’s throat. He tells the employer bluntly that her personal circumstances are of no consequence in this discussion – because she (my client) is an employer!

There is an underlying assumption behind employment law, some trade union philosophy, and many employees, that employers are not human beings. They are never to get angry, exhibit prejudices, or become depressed or anxious. Unfortunately this perception is a fact of the current culture; as I might have been told by the representative in this case – “get used to it”.

Most sources of stress arise outside the workplace in major life events, both positive and negative ones. Leaving home; marriage; new babies; new home; divorce; children in trouble; children leaving home; illness; bereavements all create stress with which the average individual can usually cope so long as not too much comes at once.

But all these sources of stress apply just as much to the employer as to the employee.

So what can you, as the employer, do?

1. Improve your personal stress resilience. This is number one. Those who are relaxed and comfortable in their own skin will be better able to cope with stress and mental illness in others. We don’t necessarily realise how stressed we are.

To achieve this, you might be open to stress-relievers: social activities; family; relaxing holidays and breaks; exercise; pet ownership; mindfulness; mediation; yoga. Some of the techniques used by those seriously stressed such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can reduce the stress in difficult managerial decision making.

2. Be seen. Your presence on the shopfloor, or in the care home or with remote workers reminds employees that you are, in fact, a human being.

3. Encourage your own employees to improve their stress resilience by using the suggestions made above. Perhaps setting the example?

4. Get roles and responsibilities clear. Role ambiguity can be a serious source of workplace stress. We see it happening too often and it is usually easy to remedy, though it has to be done with care.

5. Watch for signs of bullying and harassment in your organisation.. This too is a huge source of stress and a major cause of dysfunctionality – that means lost profit or service failures. If you suspect you personally might be the bully perpetrating the behaviour down your organisation, you could go back to step 1 in this list of tips. Alternatively, coaching can also help, talk to us.

6. Train managers and supervisors. There is a view that 90% of bullying in organisations arises from lack of supervisory skills, although stress in managers and supervisors certainly plays its part. We sometimes talk in half-humour of “b*********”, because in reality many supervisors have no idea how to “have a word” with someone who is careless, made a mistake, or evidencing the wrong attitude. Such managers either do nothing or are aggressive in their actions. The latter is, in effect, bullying. In the former case the managers can end up being bullied by their own employees! Employer Solutions are expert trainers in suitable skills.

7. Train staff in the Equality Act. All staff have to learn to leave discriminatory views, prejudices and religious beliefs at home. It is true that in religious matters employees do have a complex mixture of rights, but religious discrimination is unlawful. Again, Employer Solutions have the expertise to deliver effective training.

8. Use the Government’s “Fit to work” scheme. Our (limited) experience of this scheme has been definitively positive in stress cases. It is worth considering for those who have been off work for some while on account of stress. The scheme is a good source of encouragement to employees for them to learn coping skills.

9. Always follow a procedure when dismissing an employee. They might be careless, unreliable, even aggressive but they may also be mentally ill. It is inappropriate to ask if they are ill but employees must be given the chance to say that they are before you decide to dismiss them. If they are mentally ill then there are further tests to be satisfied, that might include a medical report. But if you don’t give an employee the chance to say they are ill then they may later claim that mental illness (or other disability) was the reason you dismissed them. For those with less than 2 years service this is a preferred route to a Tribunal claim.

Following these tips will not only reduce the risk of a Tribunal claim many-fold, but much more importantly improve productivity, profitability and service levels significantly.

We all have to get used to stress and it can be a positive force as well as a negative one. Business owners need to have better coping skills than average. In the end, as employers, they have to accept lack of sympathy from the law, trade unions, and some employees – and get used to it!

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