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Stress: How far should you go?

By Sue Firth

One of the big problems with stress is that admitting to it is often seen as a sign of weakness. What’s more, many fear – rightly or wrongly – that their difficulties will go on record or stay with them even as they move jobs, thereby acting as a barrier to their success.

Stress mattersBut since stress is now viewed as a shared responsibility, employers cannot remain immune to the impact of stress on their people. When someone is going through a stressful time in their lives it can be difficult to know what to do for the best.  Whilst it’s important for people to feel supported, there is a commercial requirement to keep the business running well. So how can you help people to get back on track without taking total responsibility for fixing the problems or issues they have?

1. Firstly, be aware that all organisations with more than five employees must have a policy on stress. This isn’t meant to be a factual, dry document that no-one reads which sits in the Staff Handbook. It is a working document that expresses what your preference is as a business in terms of how you would like people to handle their concerns if they ever go through a difficult period in their lives and feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with their job.

All this is quite easy to do and involves a facilitated discussion, the subsequent writing of the policy, and a half day programme to help embed it in to the organisation thereby bringing it to life rather than shutting it away with all the other policies held on file.

2. The second thing you can do is facilitate an environment in which your employees know what to do if they feel overwhelmed or chronically unhappy. Although the policy ought to have been circulated, the idea here is to encourage a buddy system so that people can mutually support each other. This ought to reduce the number of issues that end up at the manager’s door and enable problems to be resolved more quickly. However there are some gentle guidelines that need to be observed to make this effective.

  • Employees should be encouraged to support each other wherever possible but for half hour periods at a time. This ensures that the primary purpose is to download or let off steam, but not spend hours chatting about issues.
  • Questions such as ‘what do you want to do about that’ or ‘how can you tackle this’ result in better resolution of problems because the remedy for stress is almost always taking action. If people are empowered to actually do rather than just sit and stew, there is often a soothing or enabling effect. That way they don’t just think about an issue but feel in control.
  • If the issue is beyond the buddy or helper then the policy should state that you want an employee to bring the issue to a manager for review or to resolve the problem. Once there, the main aim is to again listen, support, advise and help but ultimately to point them in the right direction rather than to try to fix the issue for them.
  • Problems such as alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, divorce, grief and extreme aggression are best handled by an expert – so have a list of two or more counsellors or psychologists available locally to contact for advice or guidance. Despite the inevitable cost of involving someone external to the business, the potential loss of productivity and/ or cost of bringing in temporary cover or an interim manager if someone goes off sick can be far, far greater.

3. If you feel interested in going one step further towards supporting your staff it could be a good idea to train someone to be a Wellbeing Officer. This involves equipping an employee with the capability to solve or resolve most internal issues, thus reducing the requirement for external support.

This isn’t a full time role but is likely to take more than a few hours a week so using someone who is good with people and training them in coaching and simple supportive tools and techniques, will go a long way towards having a solution of your own.

In conclusion, supporting someone and paying for it might not yet be mandatory, but given that life can get in the way of an otherwise productive employee, helping them sooner rather than later may result in a win for everyone.


Sue Firth

Sue Firth

Sue Firth is a business psychologist, stress expert & a leading authority on managing change. She is also an author and is a specialist in helping CEOs and senior executives manage stress, from an individual and group perspective.  She is a member of the British Psychological Society and The Health Professions Council. See for more information.

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