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The stress bucket: Increasing employees' resilience to stress

13 September 2016

We all have different capacities for stress in our lives but making sure our stress bucket doesn’t overflow can be a challenge. With 70 million days lost from work each year due to mental health, Joanne Hankinson, HR business partner at building materials supplier, Aggregate Industries, discusses how businesses can help increase employees’ resilience to stress-related conditions to reduce the impact on both themselves and their organisation.

Mental health is the leading cause of sickness absence. Within our own business, it features in the top four reasons for absenteeism. Despite this, there is still a sizeable stigma surrounding the issue and something that is rarely addressed in the workplace. The reality however is that no-one is immune to stress. It can affect anyone at any level of an organisation.

While all of us at some point will probably say we have experienced ‘stress’, there is a difference between feeling under pressure and feeling stress. While pressure can be good for us, helping to keep us motivated and engaged, stress can appear if those pressures becomes too excessive. And we all have different tipping points.

In our organisation, we call this our ‘stress bucket’. Imagine a bucket as your capacity for stress. Every day, it fills up with pressures from both our work and home lives. It might be the hours you’re working, deadlines to meet, or you might be going through a life change such as a divorce or a bereavement. If growing numbers of these factors pour into your bucket at the same time, without healthy mechanisms to cope, it will eventually reach the top and overflow.

And just as we all have a different capacity for stress, it’s important to recognise that stress affects people differently too. What might come as second nature to one person could be the cause of a great deal of anxiety and worry for another.

Yet businesses have a duty of care to their employees, and this includes their mental wellbeing when at work. As such, it is within an organisation’s power to help manage and prevent stress in the workplace.

To help businesses, the HSE has developed its Management Standards for Work Related Stress. The Management Standards are five steps to help an organisation become better equipped to effectively manage and control the risks of work-related stress. The Management Standards offer an approach to risk management that can be reviewed in line with an organisation’s current policies and procedures and advises on how to make them part of everyday management.

An integral part of this is developing the managers within your organisation.

At Aggregate Industries, we have successfully introduced a company-wide Mental Health First Aid initiative in partnership with Mental Health First Aid England.

As part of the scheme, almost 300 of our employees have undertaken an introductory mental health awareness course. The three hour intensive programme looks at how mental health is defined and considers how individuals can look after their own mental health and wellbeing. It also aims to equip employees with the knowledge to support other colleagues and to better empathise with other people’s experiences.

Recognising the impact that stress-related illnesses have on our own business, we wanted to implement a programme that would help individuals spot the early signs of mental health problems to avoid wherever possible ill health and to guide them towards the right support.

Furthermore, we wanted our line managers to have a real understanding of mental health. So in addition to offering Mental Health First Aid England courses, we have also developed a resilience e-learning programme, which encourages managers to think about people’s roles and how they are supported and helps them spot the early signs of stress-related conditions within their own teams.

The response to opening up the dialogue around mental wellbeing and stress within our organisation has been phenomenal. 45 employees have gone on to train as a mental health first aider. These individuals can now provide help on a first aid basis and offer guidance to their colleagues about where to go for support. Just like our traditional safety first aiders, posters are placed at sites so our colleagues know who their site mental health first aiders are and how to reach them for support. This is proving invaluable and is encouraging our employees to be more open about a subject, which is very often just brushed under the carpet.

We all have busy lives and to further support our employees we have launched Health Assured, an employee assistance programme aimed at providing support to employees to help them balance work and home life. The telephone service is free to all employees and available 24/7 and gives a confidential support in all areas of life from family issues, to lifestyle addictions, or financial worries.

For any business, taking a more open and supportive approach to mental health will help employees increase their resilience to stress-related conditions and help them to manage their stress buckets to ensure they don’t reach capacity, we can significantly reduce the impacts – on individuals and our wider organisations.