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How to spot and manage stress in your growing workplace

The impact of stress on SMEs is subtle but potentially damaging. It starts with employees feeling overloaded, overwhelmed and having no control – so it doesn't hurt to find out how to spot the symptoms of stress.
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When stressed, team attitudes begin to change. They become more negative, which impact(s) client and colleague relationships, and performance and productivity start to suffer.

For smaller companies, absenteeism tends to be low, but disengagement is high. A government report on mental health in the workplace published in 2012, stated that absenteeism is costing UK employers £8.4bn a year. Presenteeism, however, costs UK employers £15.1bn a year – almost double.

So what is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is when the employee is there but their attention and focus is somewhere else. Sometimes this is referred to as “the lights are on but no one is home”. There are 11 common symptoms of stress which increase presenteeism, which include such tiredness, body and headaches, exhaustion, anxiety, annoyance, digestive problems, anger, feeling depressed (not depression which is different) and rapid heartbeats.

What triggers rising trend of presenteeism – and how to improve staff health and productivity

When employees are suffering from these stress-related symptoms, they are more prone to making mistakes, having a negative attitude and being forgetful. This can create an atmosphere within a department or team that has a knock on effect which is called “emotional contagion”.

A small but growing business should monitor its staff frequently, possibly every two months or so. Companies mistakenly think that stress is only associated with negative conditions and events. When there is high activity in a rapidly growing and exciting environment, there is still stress being placed on the individual. We are in state of high alert, and need rest and recovery time to balance this. It is when we are out of balance that employees can’t switch off at night, which starts a biological chain of events.

Monitoring staff means being aware and looking out for tell-tale signs. How do they look? Tired? Fed up? It is as basic as that. Take time to look at the individuals and check up with their colleagues. This isn’t spying. This is concern for your staff’s wellbeing.

More must be done to make entrepreneurs aware their mental health is at risk

Stress, like divorce or bankruptcy, doesn’t happen overnight. The stages and symptoms increase if unchecked. The first stage may be disengagement. It may be that the individual is driven, hyperactive, restless and overconfident. They admit to being moderately fatigued and are taking steps to recover. They have a tendency to make snap decision, which aren’t necessarily correct. Sleep is just about adequate. They are seen as tired but are still experiencing success. So the natural reaction for an employer is perhaps to leave them to it. They’re doing good business, so what’s the problem?

But then you get to the last stage, which can be more easily noticed, when the stress levels become serious and the employee is heading to burn out. The employee appears to be unaware of the problem and strongly denies anything is wrong. They have a loss of clarity and usually are first in the office and last out. They work longer but achieves less. They have no motivation, and the home/work balance suffers. They expect excessive burdens at work and become very negative.

So those are the signs, but what should you do as an employer if you recognise or suspect that a member of staff is suffering from stress?

Firstly, open lines of communication. As people sometimes find it difficult to open up, having a specially prepared Stress and Alertness Analysis questionnaire will make the process easier. This demonstrates to the individual their levels of stress. Having confidential one-to-one conversations with colleagues and asking for their opinions also helps get some context on the situation.

5 ways to avoid the work burnout

Lifestyle changes and suggestions will bring small but good results. Encourage staff to walk outside during lunch and reward it. The Ipswich Building Society have a programme that rewards its employees with a 20 minute earlier finish to the day if they go for a 20 minute walk during lunch time. The benefits are enormous, it’s a win/win model.

If your business doesn’t have a dedicated HR person or team, set up regular performance reviews and appraisals which have been designed by an external HR Consultant or Employment Solicitor. Put in place a monitoring process and have it as part of your business strategy. Businesses with under five employees aren’t required to have the same robust systems and procedures as larger firms but they are still subject to the same law. In event of a claim or serious issues, this can be very costly and stressful in itself to a small firm. So take small steps towards identifying and reducing employee stress, as they will make a big difference in the long run.

Stress affects one-fifth of the working population. We unveil some tricks to help you relax and become more productive at work and at home.

Paula Ruane is a stress specialist and resilience trainer at Ruane BioEnergetics.

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