Today is National Stress Awareness Day, though another long and difficult journey on Thameslink this morning means that actually I am quite stress–aware enough already, thank you for asking.
This is not another of those pieces about the business case for countering sources of stress in your workplace. That is too obvious to bear repetition. Nor is it one of those posts about the importance of taking time out of your hectic working day for a little me-time sitting cross-legged in your socks with a blissful smile and eyes closed serenely against the baleful stares and increasing agitation of your colleagues.
This is instead a reiteration of advice touched upon a number of times in the past in these pages – the importance of simply asking your subordinates and colleagues from time to time “How are you?”
Courtesy dictates, and all that, but in the end most exchanges of this sort are perfunctory at best – the manager is not really interested and the employee knows it – but nonetheless they are still just about enough to grease the wheels of the working day and let everyone get back to their desks with no harm done. Equally, however, with nothing positive really achieved either. Both parties can take some blame for this, but perhaps mostly the stressed employee who does not take advantage of that manager’s brief and even perhaps unintentional opening of the door to a proper conversation.
The traditional problem with asking your colleagues how they are doing is of course that they might tell you, but actually the bigger issue where stress is concerned is that they might not. Unlike a physical or serious mental health condition, the manager may simply not see signs of anything going materially wrong, or at least not until too late to prevent it. In many workplaces there are degrees of pressure from time to time which could easily explain someone appearing a little flustered or distracted without that signifying any cause for managerial concern at all. The Equality and Human Rights Commission Code of Practice tries gamely to compensate for the lack of any statutory direction as to when the employer should make enquiries of employees who appear to be suffering at work. It gives the example of an employee in a telephone call-centre who is seen sitting staring out of the window in tears. I mean, we’ve all been there, but is that enough to put the employer on notice of a problem? On those simple facts, yes, says the Code, even though there is every possibility that on its enquiry, the employee may blame a domestic issue, the brutal dashing of her hopes no longer to be working in a telephone call-centre, or something, anything, else which doesn’t involve admitting that she is stressed to breaking-point.
A reluctance to admit to suffering from stress is very understandable. You may fear that others won’t care or that they will see you as not up to the job or, at best, that it just won’t make any difference. You might be right. But you might not be, and it may turn out instead that your employer is indeed willing to have a proper discussion with you about short or longer-term adjustments to your role or working conditions. Legally, medically and professionally, it pays no-one to work on under intolerably stressful conditions. If you try to be the brave soldier for too long, no good can come of it for either you or your employer as this case showed https://www.employmentlawworldview.com/uk-high-court-gives-useful-recap-on-liability-for-stress-induced-psychiatric-illness-in-the-workplace-part-1/ earlier this year.
And as the employer, why get yourself tied up in exactly how far an employee has to come visibly unravelled before you are under a duty to ask how he is? Why not just take the risk and ask him anyway? Even the mere gesture of your doing so may mean something and you might well find that you have done your stressed employee a great service by showing him that there is a listening ear when he most needs it.