The Hidden Cost of Stress: How It Impacts Your Employees’ Health and Safety

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Written by: SafeWorkforce
26th June

Stress is a pervasive aspect of modern life. It's the body's natural response to demanding situations and can manifest in various aspects, from work to personal relationships. With 79% of people affected by work-related stress, it comes as no uprise that work is the most common cause of stress. A heavy workload is frequently a primary cause of stress in the workplace, leading to higher absence rates and work-related burnout.

What is stress?

Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Did you know one in five over 16s in the UK are stressed every single day? When stress continues over a long period of time it can create feelings of pressure and overwhelm – this is known as chronic stress.

While a healthy amount of stress can boost productivity and performance, prolonged exposure to stress can have significant health and safety implications. As an employer It’s crucial to understand stress and take proactive steps as an employer to protect both your business and your employees.

Chronic stress and employee absenteeism

Stress is a major cause of absenteeism in the workplace. Employees with high stress levels are more likely to take time off to recover, either due to physical ailments worsened by stress or the need for mental health days. This frequent absenteeism disrupts workflow and adds strain on remaining staff, potentially creating a cycle of stress and absenteeism.

When considering how chronic stress can affect your employees, there are numerous health implications to consider.

  • Cardiovascular Diseases: Stress increases the risk of heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.
  • Mental Health Disorders: Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can be exacerbated by stress.
  • Gastrointestinal Problems: Stress can lead to issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcers.
  • Weakened Immune System: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections.
  • Musculoskeletal Problems: Stress can cause muscle tension, leading to pain and discomfort.

This illustrates how stress can contribute to higher levels of absenteeism, emphasising its importance as a consideration when creating a healthy workplace environment.

Stress and safety at work

Stress not only impacts workplace productivity but also plays a critical role in safety. Here are a few examples of how stress can negatively impact safety at work.

  • Reduced Concentration and Focus: Stress can impair the brain’s ability to think clearly, resulting in decreased concentration and attention. This can heighten the risk of accidents and errors, particularly in high-stakes environments such as construction sites or when operating heavy machinery.
  • Fatigue: Chronic stress can lead to fatigue, causing reduced alertness, increasing the likelihood of accidents happening.
  • Impaired Decision-Making: Stress can affect judgment and decision-making abilities, leading stressed individuals to make poor choices that compromise safety.
  • Increased Risk-Taking Behaviour: Some individuals may engage in riskier behaviours as a coping mechanism for stress, further jeopardising safety protocols.

What can you do as a business?

As a business, there are several actions you can take to help mitigate the risks that stress can pose to your workforce. Here are just a few suggestions.

  1. Recognising Stress as a Hazard: Treating stress as a legitimate hazard in the workplace, like physical hazards like slips, trips, and falls, is a great starting point. You can conduct stress risk assessments to gain insight into potential stressors.
  2. Implementing Preventive Measures: Developing policies and practices to reduce workplace stress can be accomplished in several ways. This might include flexible work arrangements, reasonable workloads, and providing access to mental health resources.
  3. Encourage Regular Breaks: Promoting the importance of taking regular breaks to recharge will help your employees manage their own stress. Encourage them to step away from their desks, take short walks, or practice relaxation techniques. You could also support their well-being by encouraging them to take holidays and avoid excessive overtime.
  4. Providing Support Resources: You can offer resources such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), counselling services, and stress management workshops. Being able to access to these resources can help employees effectively manage their stress.
  5. Train Managers to Recognise and Address Stress: Equipping managers with the skills to recognise signs of stress in their teams will help them to provide appropriate support. Effective leadership can make a significant difference in managing workplace stress and stop stress worsening.
  6. Foster a Positive Work Environment: Creating a supportive and inclusive workplace culture can help to minimise stress. Recognising and rewarding employee achievements, encouraging open communication, and providing opportunities for professional growth are just some of the ways you can do this.

Got an employee signed-off with stress? Here are some tips on how to handle it.

In short…

Stress is undoubtedly a health and safety issue that affects both the workforce and the overall safety of your workplace. By recognising stress as a legitimate concern and taking proactive steps to mitigate its impact, you can create a healthier, safer environment where people can thrive.

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