Have you seen an increase in either short term or long term sickness absence recently in your workplace? Do you wonder what part stress may play in this increase? Have you heard the dreaded “S” word used more often amongst your colleagues and managers in the past few months?
There are two reasons why an organisation would want to know for sure about stress in their workplace. One is to manage the associated costs regarding stress and the other is to comply with the legal obligations that an employer has towards their staff.
Carrying out a stress audit would enable you to identify whether stress is an issue in your workplace, to what extent and which areas you may need to tackle first. It is one thing to suspect you have a problem but quite another to understand exactly what the situation is and have a plan to deal with it.
Costs – what costs?
There are a wide range of costs to a business of an increase in stress, more sickness absence impacts productivity, increases over-time payments, takes up valuable management time and increases the need for temporary cover. Stress leads to higher staff turnover and the related recruitment and training costs. It also has a knock-on effect on health insurance and health care costs, and in the worst case, can result in legal action against the business. For effective human resource management, it makes sense to understand any stress which may exist and take steps to reduce it.
How to carry out a stress audit with what you already have
A full and comprehensive stress audit is a detailed process, involving interviews, discussions and questionnaires at all levels in the organisation. On the other hand, your HR manager can probably give you a good starting point using information that they already have to hand. Data on sickness absence and staff turnover, details of return to work interviews, copies of appraisals and monthly staff meetings, discussions with union reps and occupational health support. All these information sources will provide an initial insight into whether stress is a potential problem in your organisation.
A word of caution
Stress is a very emotive word and one which is difficult to define as it means something different to everyone. In one sense “stress” is an over-used word and is often used inappropriately, people all too easily claim to be “stressed out” when they are simply busy that day. On the other hand, there are workplace cultures where saying that you are stressed would be seen as weak and unable to cope, so employees would never use the word or admit to having a problem. The person tasked with sorting through the initial data collection regarding stress must therefore be as objective as possible and willing to read between the lines of the information presented.
What if there is a problem?
If the initial findings do indicate that there is a potential stress issue, then the more detailed and formalised audit approach would be a sound investment. An employer has legal obligations to identify, prevent and monitor stress in the workplace. The audit is essentially a risk assessment exercise looking at stress.
Seven Step Audit
1. Identify stakeholders – and get them involved. These may include employee forums, union representatives, health & safety managers, senior managers, occupational health providers
2. Agree a clear goal – action plan, delivery time-table and how the outcomes will be reported
3. Communicate – the goals and plan clearly to all managers and staff so they understand the process, become involved and know what to expect
4. Gather information – this can be done with a mix of interviews with staff, either individually or in groups, and employee questionnaires. Each business should develop their own interview format and questionnaires, they may wish to use the Health & Safety Executive headings for Stress at Work:-
5. Collate information and report back – identify key stressors and “hot spots”, report back to all the stakeholders from point one above
6. Put together action plan – which should involve all stakeholders to find the best way to address issues which have been identified. The plan must include steps to prevent stress by reducing the identified risk factors, to help get all staff back to work, to set-up systems to monitor and prevent stress in the future. This may include training and 1-2-1 support for staff
7. Carry out regular follow-up audits
This post was written by Charlie Damonsing of CLAssociates. CLAssociates specialises in helping businesses manage stress in the workplace, providing consultancy, training and 1-2-1 support. For further details please contact Charlie on 0771 559 6487.