Business

How better management can tackle causes of stress

From financial counselling and meeting-free time to cycle races organised by staff “affinity” groups, employers around the world are exploring multiple ways to boost the mental and physical health of staff in a post-pandemic world.

Wellbeing in the workplace was, for many years, an incidental add-on, involving one-off interventions to encourage greater physical activity or healthy eating — such as the provision of fruit in the canteen or subsidised gym membership. But there are now more wide-ranging approaches to address mental wellbeing that tackle the underlying structural causes of workplace stress, rooted in how organisations are managed.

There is a clear economic case for action: reduced physical and mental health is associated with lower performance, due to absenteeism as well as presenteeism, where staff come to work but underperform. And other worrying trends have been intensified by the pandemic — not least the high proportion of working-age people withdrawing from the workforce entirely, raising concerns for the economy and individual employers.

All of these factors are captured in the latest awards for Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, run by Vitality in partnership with Aon, Rand Europe, the University of Cambridge and the Financial Times. Together, they explored the state of the country’s workforce, identified trends and distilled best practices based on more than 8,500 responses from staff in 251 public and private sector organisations.

Overall, the data point to a growing burden of fatigue and depression since the first edition of the awards in 2014, coupled with continued reports of underlying chronic conditions, musculoskeletal concerns, and insufficient exercise and sleep.

One of the most significant shifts during Covid-19 was towards different patterns of workforce organisation, with a significant rise in hybrid working. These trends continue and, for those able to operate in this way, the survey suggests they bring greater productivity, higher job satisfaction and less ill health.

However, while there is enhanced interest in programmes to support employee wellness, and no shortage of consultants and services, the evidence on what works remains thin. Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at Manchester university, says rigorous studies are rare and difficult to conduct. “Organisational researchers feel they can’t get work on them published and employers don’t want to waste time doing them,” he says. His own research, backed by discussions with the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, a network of senior UK executives that he oversees, points to the need to tackle the underlying structural reasons for employee stress, frequently rooted in poor management practices.

Cooper argues that reduced workplace stress and improved productivity is linked to factors including autonomy, a sense of purpose among staff and empathetic management. “It’s all about the line manager — from the shop floor to the top floor,” he says. “They need to have interpersonal, social and empathetic skills. But we promote them today based on technical expertise.”

The Britain’s Healthiest Workplace awards at least point in the direction of trends and best practices that merit greater attention in future.

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