The ultimate guide to employee stress and how businesses can tackle it
A recent PerkBox survey found that stress is significantly on the rise in the UK, with the top two causes of this stress being work-related or financial worries.
This is a huge problem for companies given that, across 2019 and 2020 alone, 17.9 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety.
Our increasing workloads, the need to be constantly online and contactable, and working from home during the pandemic, mean that being stressed has become culturally accepted.
But given that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year, what can companies do to combat both the work-related and financial stress of employees?
To answer that we interviewed two specialists, Graham Landi (a fully qualified counsellor who also works as a therapist for workplace mental health company Spill) and Steve Williams (a chartered financial planner who also works as a financial coach at Bippit). What follows is a summary of that conversation, and an explanation of how companies can recognise, manage, and overcome employee stress.
What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?
There’s a strong link between mental, work, and financial stress. But that word ‘stress’ covers a whole range of issues, both everyday and more serious one-off periods. Graham explains…
“Stress is a physical and emotional response to being under pressure. So, in that sense, we’re all going to feel stress from time to time. In contrast, anxiety is a feeling of fear or foreboding. The idea that something terrible is going to happen in the future.”
“Stress and anxiety are on a continuum where if you don’t attend to stress, you’ll likely develop an anxiety which will see you avoid the things that are creating the stress.”
While this may sound obvious, it’s an important point for managers to note. If they don’t help an employee deal with work-related stress, it’s likely that that employee will want to avoid work – making them less productive and more likely to leave.
What is financial stress?
“Financial stress is about how in control you feel with your day-to-day finances, and how confident you are about what you need to do,” says Graham.
“Money is never really talked about when we’re at school or university. No one ever really sits you down and explains what certain things mean and this creates a huge element of uncertainty and worry.”
Improving financial literacy, and breaking the taboo of talking about money, is key. It’s something Steve experiences first-hand.
“I’ve seen scenarios where people are stressed about money, but they’re actually in a much better position than they think. They just don’t know it because they don’t talk about money. Most people don’t know where they’re at financially as they haven’t spoken to someone and got reassurance.”
If you manage a team, imagine if you can give your people this reassurance? We’ll look at ways you can do this later, but the potential to ease concerns, grow confidence, and improve loyalty is huge.
How has the pandemic affected our stress levels?
“We all have a human need for certainty, and want to feel like we have some idea of what’s going to happen next,” says Graham.
“The pandemic illustrated, in a very stark way, that we don’t know the future. There’s so much uncertainty about what to do next, where people are going to go, and what they want to do with their lives.”
For many, the pandemic has brought about a re-evaluation of what matters to them. From the lifestyle they want, to the job they need. It’s one of the reasons behind the so-called Great Resignation, with a Randstad study finding that 24% of people were planning a job change within three to six months.
Graham adds: “we have this idea in our heads that everybody is leaving their jobs, getting in campervans, and traveling around the world. This creates a huge pressure. There’s a feeling that you’ve got to do something to change your life because other people are doing it. Stress often comes from conflict: what are you doing versus what should you be doing?”
Many people’s plans, goals, and ideals have changed in the past two years. For company leaders it’s crucial they understand any new desires their employees may have. Only then can they create an environment and culture that works for staff in a post-Covid world.
What is the relationship between stress and burnout?
At Bippit we want to give people peace of mind when it comes to their finances. A big part of this is ensuring they have the fundamental financial blocks in place to feel more secure in their life.
Graham says: “The idea that you can live a life without stress is nonsense, and actually not desirable.”
“I like to talk about the stress curve… Having little stress is not good as you start to get bored and everything feels a bit dull (which in itself brings about stress). Instead, you want to hit optimal stress where you’re stretched as much as you need to be. You might be slightly overworked, but it’s only two or three days at a time.”
“If you go over this then you get burnt out. You become overwhelmed by stress and the more you worry about how to keep up with your work, the more stressed you feel.”
What causes stress in the workplace?
Workload is one of the main causes of work-related stress, yet only one in five would choose to discuss their concerns with a superior at work. Companies have a real communication issue to deal with.
Graham explains: “we live in this hustle culture where it’s a badge of honour to be super busy. It stops people (especially leaders and managers) from finding time to give feedback to those they work with.”
“This is a problem because if staff aren’t given feedback then they stress about how they’re doing. It leaves a gap that they fill in with thoughts of their worst-case scenario: ‘If my boss isn’t telling me that I’m doing well then I must be performing badly.’ You start to feel like an impostor.”
On top of these feedback issues, the CIPD reports that nearly 1 in 4 say poor financial wellbeing leads to stress in their organisation…
How can companies support their employees’ financial wellbeing and stress?
Given the daily conversations Steve has with employees, both through his personal practice and the Bippit app, few are better placed to answer the above question.
“It’s important to arm staff with the knowledge and tools they need to take control of their situation, and to empower them to live within their means,” Steve explains.
“Debt has a huge impact on people’s mental health. Do your staff know how they can manage their debt and build an emergency fund? Those two things are the best and quickest ways to improve financial wellbeing.”
Graham adds: “what’s nuts to me is that as an employer you’d ever leave your people struggling with anxiety, stress, or any mental health issue. The very best that will happen is their performance will decline. The worst is that they’ll get sick or leave.”
“Taking care of your people improves their performance in the long run, and makes them so much more loyal, dedicated, and connected to you.”
Combining our experiences at Bippit with the conversations both Steve and Graham are having, here are five actions any manager can take today to tackle their team’s financial stress…
Have a real conversation with your team about the pandemic and how their goals might have changed. Where are their areas of stress? And how can you be flexible with them to relieve anxieties?
Measure the financial health of your team to understand how financial stress is impacting them. Use the stress curve in 1:1 conversations to track where stress may be impacting a team member negatively.
- Open up
Company leaders need to set the tone and start the conversation about money.
Graham says: “financial health requires connection. You can only connect through vulnerability and that means leaders have to be willing to open themselves up to some degree. They have to take the risk of being judged as without this you can’t really connect.”
Look at the tools and resources you have in place to support employees suffering with stress, such as Spill or Bippit, and make sure everyone knows about them. You can’t be the expert in everything, but get the right tools in place so you can signpost people to help.
A Deloitte study found that for every £1 spent by employers on wellbeing interventions, they get £5 back in reduced staff turnover, absence, and presenteeism.
- Look after yourself
Think about how you are coping with stress and where you may need support. If staff see their company leaders looking at their own finances then they’re much more likely to engage with the topic.
Want to improve your team’s financial health?