How to manage stress in the workplace

Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.

In recent years, stress, and the mental well-being of employees, have become a priority for businesses across the country to ensure that colleagues are properly supported at work.

A recent survey, conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, estimated that mental health problems now cost the UK economy around £118 billion per year. That means each workplace costs around £1600 for each employee per annum[1]. This has seen businesses focus on supporting mental well-being at work, from the introduction of well-being dogs in offices to providing mental health training for managers, continuously looking for ways to do more for the improvement of their employees’ working lives.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we’ve produced this article with the support of our charity partner, The Mental Health Foundation and their workplace subsidiary, Mental Health at Work, to provide managers with some guidance to help colleagues with stress and poor mental health.

What is workplace stress?

‘Stress’ means different things to different people, and at Mental Health at Work, it is viewed as an invitation for a conversation. Having a trusted colleague or manager available for a confidential and non-judgemental conversation enables us to talk about what is on our minds.

If that individual is also trained to ask open and reflective questions, then often a conversation is enough.  The power of this conversation can be strengthened if this is backed up with signposting for relevant and timely support, including employee assistance programmes, and managers that are open to considering reasonable adjustments.

If an individual can have this conversation at an early stage when they feel they are moving away from being of sound mental health, then these actions could help an individual return to a good mental state. 

Top tips for managing stress in the workplace

1) Recognise when stress is a problem

Signs of stress manifest themselves in many ways, both mental and physical.

Regularly advise employees on how to recognise when stress is impacting them physically, from feeling muscle pains, tiredness, headaches, and migraines. Increase support if they are experiencing these problems and ask them if they need help devising a plan to tackle their workload.

In supporting your team member with their workload, make it clear to them that they are welcome to push back on any tasks if that helps them and relieves any unwanted stress. It’s also important to ensure that your colleagues know that they can always speak to you if they ever require support.

Reassure them that anything they say to you will be treated with sensitivity and care and, importantly, in total confidence. Also, encourage them to speak with their good friends and family members about the increased stress they are feeling as they can provide practical advice and support in their personal life too.

Having an open and honest conversation is a great starting point

As we all know, a conversation is a two-way street. If an employee wanted to raise work stress with their line manager, part of the success of that outcome is how prepared line managers are to receive that conversation.

Have they gone through awareness training so that they’ve removed their own personal bias and stigma around mental health? That is important because you need the person you are talking to, to be able to listen to you. 

As an employee, part of the answer to this is going into the conversation not expecting your manager to solve it for you, because actually that’s not their job, and they’re not qualified to do that. Go in with the responsibility that your mental health is your mental health, and no one else is an expert in it. 

You would ideally like your manager to listen and ask how they can assist you to be able to manage your work, not to be able to fix the problem entirely. It is important that, ahead of the conversation, you have thought about some suggestions about what is right for you. 

 There are many different ways to reduce stress in the workplace

At Mental Health at Work, they believe that what’s right for one person is not going to be right for another. It is not always about less work. There is a myriad of complexities around it. So, do the thinking beforehand, about what could make the difference for you. 

Having more than one suggestion is important because this is going to be a conversation. It might be that it would really help you if you could leave at four o’clock on a Thursday. It might be within your manager’s sphere of influence to say yes to that — but it might not be, and that’s also perfectly reasonable. But you then have to think, ‘what else might I want to suggest?’

Think as broadly as possible about how the workplace can support you, or what your request to the workplace is. Your mental health is your mental health. No one else is an expert in it. 

Our wellbeing at work is critical. It is important that we recognise when ourselves and others might be moving away from it. The earlier that you can act, the more likely that you’re going to be able to receive preventative or protective action that enables you to move back to better emotional health. Don’t delay it. The earlier you can have the conversation, the better. 

2) Make healthier choices

Try to work with your team to make healthier decisions about their wellbeing, from eating healthy meals to incorporating exercise into daily routines.

Eating well, with plenty of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in your daily diet, alongside drinking plenty of water, is one of many key factors that can improve you and your colleagues’ moods.

Regular exercise can do the same; even just a little bit has many benefits, including the ability to put you and your colleagues in a better mindset and improvements to physical health. Encourage wellbeing walks or walking meetings at work so that you and your colleagues can produce endorphins (the happy hormone) for a clearer, more positive mindset.

At the same time, you could try to implement an organisational culture which provides a reasonable work/life balance with your colleagues or employees to ensure that they actually do take time out for themselves. This will enable them to do what they enjoy for their personal wellbeing, outside of their working life.

Striking a balance between the responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress levels. 

3) Take care

Meditation is a coping technique that many people use to stay calm and collected through difficult, stressful moments. Why not organise a group meditation session for you and your co-workers? The likelihood is that your colleagues may have tried meditation in some form before. But for those who haven’t, it could act as a powerful technique that supports their mental health in the long term.

As a manager or colleague, you can also speak with people at work about how to get the best sleep. Good restful sleep provides people with an opportunity to properly recharge and prepare for the next working day. For more information about how to improve sleep, click here.

Alongside these key tips, it’s important to always be kind to yourself. Try to put things into perspective and don’t be too hard on yourself. Difficult, stressful situations will pass, but keeping a positive mindset will give you a better chance of coming through it. 

4) Seek professional support

Stress is not a diagnosable mental health condition.

At Mental Health at Work, early conversations are encouraged in the workplace about our mental health: with colleagues, with managers and sometimes with HR or occupational health, along with early access to the right signposting.

However, if you feel that this is not enough to support movement back to health, and if you or your team continue to feel overwhelmed by work-related stress, encourage them to seek professional help. Reassure your colleagues that reaching out for support does not mean that they are a failure and that it actually shows how strong they are.

Ensure that your colleague is aware that in making people aware of the stress they are feeling, colleagues are likely to feel relieved that they have spoken up – since they are probably thinking and feeling the same.

It’s important to get help as soon as possible so that you or your colleagues can start to feel better.

You could also talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling. They will be able to advise you on treatment and may refer you for further help.

If you feel comfortable, talk to your manager or HR team about how you’re feeling to see if they can make changes to your workload or hours. If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Scheme, you could contact them for confidential support or counselling.

For further support, take a look at the Mental Health Foundation, which has a variety of useful resources on how to manage stress, in a personal and professional capacity.

In addition, Lyreco now offers organisations expert advice on workplace mental health initiatives and customised programmes for employers through Mental Health at Work. For more information on this service, click here.

If you require urgent support, please reach out to the Samaritans, who can be contacted by telephone on: 116 123.

[1] Mental Health and Employers, Deloitte, Jan 2020