More and more of us are feeling overburdened at work, especially in these uncertain times. But there are practical steps you can take to improve the situation…
By Margaret Nicholls
Last year’s tragic events have brought some extraordinary responses from Londoners — bravery, empathy, kindness, compassion. And we carry on living our lives, following our routines, doing our best.
But the reality is that such events do take their toll, both on our personal lives and at work. As a result, workplace counsellors are seeing a surge in demand for their help and support.
‘Since traumatic events like the London Bridge attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire, more and more people are coming forward in need of help,’ says Andrew Kinder, professional head of mental health services at Optima Health, a major provider of workplace counselling.
Such events make us feel vulnerable and uncertain and this can lead to unmanageable stress. ‘Stress is cumulative,’ says Andrew.
‘We’ve had years of uncertainty in the workplace, from austerity, with ever bigger cuts, to the Brexit referendum. This uncertainty trickles down through organisations and the effects are still reverberating.’
For many of us, uncertainty at work and personal issues may be simmering beneath the surface then a traumatic event in the news will trigger a crisis. ‘You may be coping with these things individually, but add them together and suddenly you are unable to cope,’ explains Andrew, who is also a governor at British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
What are the most common causes of work-related stress?
According to recent research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), stress is now the most common cause of long-term absence from work, cited by nearly a third of organisations.
Their figures show that the three main causes of stress at work are volume of work (55 per cent), relationship or family issues (33 per cent) and management style (32 per cent). ‘Workload is the biggest cause of stress,’ CIPD confirm, ‘and our findings show that increases in stress-related absence are more common where long working hours are the norm.’
Worryingly, the workload problem is getting worse, with 56 per cent of organisations reporting a culture of long working hours in 2016, 13 per cent higher than 2015, according to CIPD figures.
If work stress is getting you down, what should you do?
If you are feeling unable to cope at work due to stress, the first thing to do is to tell your manager or someone in HR. Even if you raise your issues informally, it is wise to keep a written record of your discussions in case you need it at a later stage.
Unfortunately, many of us do not feel comfortable telling our employers. CIPD says: ‘Our survey shows that 45 per cent of employees are not confident disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their employer or manager.’ With a third of stress caused by management style, it is understandable that we do not want to make matters worse.
Nevertheless, employment law solicitor Philip Landau advises that it is important to make your employer aware of the situation. ‘Once you have notified them of an issue, responsibility passes to your employer to intervene and take all reasonable steps, including the possibility of sending you home if necessary, and referring the matter to occupational health.’
Although there are no specific laws regarding workplace stress, your employer does have a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees.
And if your stress is caused by an issue at work, for example, workload or organisational change, there are many things that your employer can do to help.
How can your employer support you?
- You could start by speaking to your GP about how you are feeling and work with him/her to approach your employer to ask for some informal flexibility to support you. This could be a temporary arrangement where you start later, leave earlier or work from home on occasion (depending on organisational requirements, your role and the circumstances).
- If there is ambiguity about what is expected of you and this is making you anxious you could ask your employer to clarify your role and its expectations.
- If you are struggling with workload or a new system you could request extra support and training.
- If there is friction with a colleague or your manager then you could approach HR or your department head for assistance in trying to resolve the issues. This could be dealt with informally through a meeting or through a structured and facilitated process (many HR professionals are trained in mediation).
- Find out if your company has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) telephone helpline. EAPs offer free confidential support, advice and counselling to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems 24 hours a day. Many allow family members to use the service also.
The scheme is confidential so your employer will not know if you have used the service.
Andrew Kinder says that workplace counselling can help deal with the practical aspects of the problem as well as the emotional side. And that making progress on the practical issues can help you move forward. He says: ‘It is helpful to focus on the things you can control, for example if the problem is adapting to a new system, then you can ask for training or more time to become used to it. If the problem is friction with a colleague, then you can bring it to the attention of a manager. There are often things you can influence when you look at them in a different way.’
If you feel that your employer’s response to your issue has been inadequate, you can raise a formal grievance. This usually means detailing your concerns in writing to your employer.
In response your employer should formally investigate matters and provide you with an outcome.
However, if the stress is affecting your health to the extent that you feel unable to work, then you should see your GP, for medical advice and guidance.
Your GP may even sign you off as unfit to work for a period. Review the terms of your contract and your employer’s sickness policy (if applicable) to see what you are entitled to in terms of contractual company pay. Otherwise and depending on your eligibility you could be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).
What if the problem is not work-related?
Having stress in your personal life, for example, financial worries, bereavement or a change in circumstances, may affect your performance at work. If this is the case, you should call your EAP service for confidential support. If your employer does not have an EAP then consider engaging with one of the established UK mental health charities such as Mind – Sane or The Mental Health Foundation * web links at the bottom of this article.
You might also consider talking to your manager or HR department about the (non)-work related issues affecting your work performance if you feel able. This may help your employer have an understanding as to why you might not be at your best.
If you feel you are too unwell too work, then you should consult your GP, and/or ask your employer to refer you to their occupational Health service (if applicable) for medical guidance about your working arrangements.
Can I be sacked while I’m off sick with stress?
Prolonged sickness absence is a difficult situation to experience. As well as the condition itself that has led to the absence, people often worry and become anxious about how their extended absence from work is being perceived by their colleagues and employer. On the positive side most periods of absence are short-term (less than 6 months) and people are able to return to work with the aid of a supportive employer and an effective response to treatment.
However, many employers find that they cannot support longer periods of absence (12 months or more) due to the nature of the business/organisation and the resources available.
Depending on the prognosis and the circumstances, it might be the case that there are no reasonable steps that can be taken to adequately produce a successful return to work in your (pre-absences) role.
An employer should only reach this conclusion when it has sought current and specific medical advice about your condition and consulted with you about this potential outcome as part of a formal and reasonable process.
As Philip Landau explains: ‘Your employer is not obliged to keep your job available for you on an open-ended basis. Your employer could ultimately dismiss you for long-term sickness absence, or if they consider you are no longer capable of carrying out your role, but they will have to carry out a fair process in doing so.’
What if I can’t face working for my employer any longer?
If you feel that you cannot carry on working for your employer, then it may be wise to seek employment advice from an organisation such as ACAS who can give you free confidential outline telephone advice on employment matters.
If you feel that you want to try and negotiate a parting of the ways with your employer, you might consider taking legal advice. Philip says: ‘It may be possible for an agreement to be reached with your employer for the mutual termination of your employment. This would usually result in a lump sum financial package being paid to you. (in return for which you would agree not to make any future tribunal claim against your employer).
Employment Legal Advice: Landau Law