Managing Stress and Health in a Small Business

Kate Russell discusses how best to reduce the risk of hazards to the mental health of your employees. 

The tragic suicide of actor Robin Williams has touched people all over the world – as he battled with severe depression coupled with addiction issues for many years.

His suicide once again reminds us that people can be fragile. Different people will respond in different ways to the same stimuli at different times. It’s not always predictable and even the most emotionally resilient will wobble at times. It’s a difficult area to understand and can create its own challenges for employers. Bear in mind that mental ill-health conditions are capable of being a disability under the Equality Act 2010 so into protections against discrimination are often triggered.

The cause of a mental ill-health condition could be completely unrelated to the work an employee does, or it could be connected to or as come about as a result of the work. Jobs with high levels of pressure and stress may be the cause of health problems for those who do them.

In addition to all their other responsibilities managers must keep an eye out for possible health problems and take action accordingly. Admiral Sandy Woodward, who led the Royal Navy in the Falklands War, was severely concerned that his men would suffer stress through the worry of letting colleagues down in a high-pressure situation. His medical officer told him to look for three main symptoms: regular yawning, refusal to communicate with colleagues, and unexplained falling performance.

Another common symptom in high-pressure jobs is the refusal to take a break. Tired people are not effective, do not work so well with their colleagues and are much more likely to slide into illness.

Building positive mental health

As employers we have a duty of care to our employees and must do what we can to reduce the risk of hazards to mental health and implement initiatives to build positive mental health. How can employers do that? This is my personal list. You may have other tips to add.

• Do what you can to build emotional resilience. For example, encourage employees to get enough rest. They should give 110 per cent attention to work while they’re there, give a bit extra, then go home at a reasonable time and do and think about other things. In the same way, make sure they take holiday regularly. People are not robots and they need downtime.

• Balance is important. Mistakes happen, especially when employees are new or inexperienced. Give honest and objective feedback, help them learn from their mistakes then encourage them to draw a line and move to the next thing. In other words don’t keep dwelling on the negative.

• Build a culture where you recognise and appreciate achievements. A small step in the right direction is just as important as passing the finishing post.

• Build a good support system. Our office is physically set up to optimise efficient shared knowledge and good working practices. We mentor new and recent employees, agree workloads, priorities and deadlines, give constructive feedback and share problems.

• Encourage the team to have a healthy outlook. We have a ‘no food in the office’ rule, (they have breakfast before they start work not at 9.05am), they are encouraged to drink plenty of water and leave the office for a proper break at lunchtime. Our office hours officially end at 5.30pm. The team are normally all gone some time before 6pm.

• Helping others helps our own mental health. As a work group we do a team event for one of our charities every year. It gives a great feel-good factor.

Create a pleasant work environment. You wouldn’t believe what can kick off in our office. It can be a very crazy place. But we keep it clean, tidy and well organised. There are colourful flowers in our planters and cheerful artwork on the walls. Windows are open when the weather permits (I am a fresh air fiend) and we tidy up together every night so we have a welcoming workplace to return to each day.

• Recognise achievements and compliment your team members appropriately; encourage your team to compliment their colleagues.

• Leave some time to laugh. We work at a phenomenal rate with difficult issues and some very stressed clients, but we make time to share humour. It has a huge benefit and brings us together as a team.

• Help employees understand and accept that there are some things they just cannot change. Acceptance is key. A good deal of anxiety arises from trying to change things beyond our control. Recognising that is essential to good mental health.

• Encourage employees to identify areas they find difficult and take responsibility for coming up with a plan to tackle it. Help them implement it.

• If an employee does have mental ill health issues, support him or her as much as possible by investigating, providing information, support and making reasonable adjustments as appropriate.

• Do what you can to encourage a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the positives. If your employees understand that they can help shift their mind set by looking round and recognising that there are quite a few good things in their lives it energises and helps them cope with tough and mentally draining problems.

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