Building a business case for managing stress in your organisation can be extremely challenging. Some managers don’t believe it’s an issue, others that it’s an unfortunate inevitability. Lack of accountability is a recurring theme – the “Don’t bring your problems to work” attitude is not only common but also unproductive, damaging and contrary to Irish employment law.
People experiencing high levels of stress are more likely to hide the fact than do something about it. The irony is that once the organisation is prepared to recognise stress as a business risk, it’s relatively straightforward to identify, manage and mitigate – there are tried and tested frameworks and processes available for doing so. The challenge is in helping your organisation to realise that stress is a business risk, and that learning to manage it can have long lasting benefits for the organisation.
You can significantly improve your sick-leave bill
43% of all business days lost due to ill health are due to stress[i]. Stop and let that sink in for a moment: almost half your sick-leave bill is due to stress and mental ill-health. In all likelihood you may not even be aware this is the case – 92% of staff believe that admitting to a mental health problem would damage their career or put their job at risk[ii]. Research suggests that organisations pay an average of €1,200 per employee per year in stress related costs[iii].
You can reduce the wider organisational impact
As well as the direct cost of stress-related sick-leave, there is a domino effect of follow-on costs. HR case management costs. Revenue lost due to reduced productivity. Redundancy, early retirement and re-hire and retraining costs. Penalties and reputational damage from legal challenges (which go beyond just health and safety – there are five separate pieces of legislation relevant to workplace mental health in Ireland). Stress also affects decision making, relationships with clients, and interpersonal communication. Over time it re-wires our brains to change how we perceive the world.
You can re-write the narrative on organisational change
The physical costs of chronic stress are well known and have direct and measurable effects: high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, suppressed immune system and disrupted sleep are some of the most common outcomes. But stress also triggers changes in how we think. Stress is a survival reaction which has evolved to keep us safe in the face of physical threats. It’s a short-term solution that gets triggered by the long term challenges in the workplace, and this disconnect between what stress is for and what triggers it at work leads to a number of unhelpful behaviours. We become far more focused on our own safety. Our thoughts race and we are prone to reckless and irrational decisions. Over time we become forgetful and careless and our judgement becomes impaired. We become uncommunicative and easily lose sight of the big picture. Physical exhaustion from a body constantly ready to flee or fight leaves us ill-prepared to work. Most significantly from an organisational point of view, stress makes us extremely resistant to change. In an environment where the ability to implement successful change quickly is a major competitive advantage, stress tells us to keep things as they are, that there is safety in the familiar and that change is just another threat to deal with. If change implementation is a recurring pain point, look at the mental fitness of your organisation first and foremost.
Your line managers will benefit most
There are an unfortunate number of factors working against line managers where stress is concerned. They have downward pressure from senior management to produce results and upward pressure from their own teams to represent them in the organisation. They are often first-time managers and may have strong technical skills but little or no training for coping with the psychological pressures of management. They also tend to be the most hard-working and conscientious staff – those least likely to admit they’re suffering from stress and most likely to try to put their job before their health.
Encouraging your management team to look after their own mental health will aid retention, performance, and team engagement. It will also help them to recognise and address stress in their own teams before it becomes costly and damaging, as early intervention has been shown to have a significant effect on the cost per incident.
You will attract (and keep) resilient high performers
With job markets becoming more and more competitive, work-life balance isn’t just a buzz-word anymore, it’s often a critical factor in deciding to change jobs. Having an employee lifecycle of take-on, stress-up and burnout is not only costly, but can lead to an organisation that lacks cohesive direction with high levels of presenteeism and low morale. Having to explain why the last guy left is never a good start to a relationship.
It’s the right thing to do
We all have an obligation to make the workplace as safe as possible, and to ensure that our colleagues are happy, healthy and able to perform to their full potential. Where stress is concerned it’s easy to blame staff and to point out that they didn’t make you aware of the problem, but there are often very valid reasons for keeping quiet. Bringing stress into the open is the organisation’s responsibility, and in my next blog I’ll look at how to start normalising the conversation on stress in the workplace.
Damian McCourt is a refugee from a long career in IT and financial services, who now advises organisations on stress management, emotional intelligence and engagement to aid in staff retention and increase organisational effectiveness.
[i] Health and Safety Executive (2015): Work relates stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain 2015 (retrieved from www.hse.gov.uk/statistics)
[ii] Time to Change (2008) Stigma Shout: Service user and carer experiences of stigma and discrimination. London.
[iii] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2016): Mental Health is your business.