Employee wellbeing is a complex topic. Every sector and workplace will face some level of challenges associated with stress, and everyone’s individual experiences will not only vary but have different knock-on consequences for their broader well-being.

However, our own Well-Being Report: A benchmark for Canadian health found well-being is at a low point as people struggle with lifestyle challenges around sleep and physical activity, with work stress being a key factor[1].

Undoubtedly, some industries and roles will come under more pressure, and therefore face more challenges when it comes to stress and impacts on mental health, than others. Recent research published in the International Journal of Stress Management has found that healthcare workers, social workers and teachers experience a higher level of stress than workers in other professions[2]. This aligns with other studies which have consistently shown very high rates of burnout, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among workers in these professions that involve high emotional demands and difficult work environments1.

For healthcare workers in particular, job pressures have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, with a study in the UK finding 47% of public health workers showing symptoms of mental health issues2. Frontline workers faced tremendous stress from staffing shortages, lack of protective equipment, risk of infection, witnessing widespread suffering and death, and more. Even after the most acute phase of the pandemic, high job demands, long hours and other difficult working conditions continued to take a toll on their mental health.

This is not to say other professions do not face stress – for example, in the insurance space in the UK, 70% of workers said they have to do more work than they have time for, leading to increased workplace pressure[3].

However, it does showcase the ways in which workplace stress can differ depending on the sector. For example, while healthcare and social workers may face particular stresses around emotional labour and traumatic experiences, corporate employees often struggle with workload, finding the right work/life balance and lacking motivation. Blue collar jobs like manufacturing, construction and transportation have their own stresses in terms of physical demands, safety, job insecurity and more.

While stress can be triggered at many moments in life, in the UK stress is the most common work-related illness, something which has only worsened with the cost of living crisis. In fact, recent statistics show that in 2022/23, the number of workers reporting work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain was approximately 875,000 compared with 914,000 in the previous year[4]. While slightly improved, the number still remains extremely high. Alongside the moral duty of care workplaces and employers have for their teams, this is concerning on another level as it can have a significant impact on workforce productivity and reactive healthcare cost – be that through an insurance claim or from time out of the workforce. Research has shown that employees who report high levels of stress and burnout are more likely to make mistakes, be less productive, take leave and eventually quit their job5.

Workplace Stress

In the workplace, there are a number of stressors which can affect employees. For example, an employee might feel under pressure if the demands of their job, such as the long hours, excessive workload, time pressures, physical labour, and emotionally taxing situations are greater than what they can comfortably manage.

Staffing changes can also cause workplace stress with employee turnover rates contributing to a disconnected team and people being required to ‘fill the gap’ between one team member leaving, and another joining. It is worth noting that staffing changes can cause employees or employers to skip regular progress meetings or management check-ins to evaluate and ensure role progression is happening sustainably.

Lack of control and support in one’s job is another major factor which leads to higher stress. Employees who have little ability to make decisions about how to do their work and little say over their schedules or priorities tend to experience more stress. Other sources of work-related stress include conflict with co-workers or bosses, lack of resources, over or under supervision, and changes in duties. Most importantly, a negative or toxic work environment with bullying, harassment, discrimination, lack of support and unhealthy competition also affects an employee’s mental wellbeing.

In recent years, we have also seen ever-growing reliance on technology heighten employee stress further as the UK workforce becomes increasingly attached to their devices and screens. “Technostress” – an inability to switch off beyond the “9-5” due to working “on the go” through our digital devices – causes stress and burnout, leading to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. What’s more, with an “always on” approach, the overabundance of information can make it difficult for employees to maintain productivity and meet deadlines.  In fact, 47% of employees in the UK cite tech issues at work as having a negative impact on mental health[5].

How can employers help?

Work-related stress is a huge cost for organisations and causes the loss of over 15 million days of work, as well as costing the UK economy UK over £28 billion annually[6]. HR Directors and leadership teams no matter the industry need to acknowledge the correlation between excessive workloads and employee stress, and act accordingly. They also play an important role in promoting understanding of how to best support employees experiencing stress, and in supporting wellbeing.

To help manage stress-contributing factors, organisations should conduct regular analysis of workloads, deadlines, schedules and staffing levels to identify areas where employees may be overloaded. Making adjustments like adding staff, resetting realistic expectations, and prioritising key tasks can relieve burnout risks. Additionally, employers can offer a wellbeing programme which promotes stress reduction and provides clinically backed resources to support long-term behaviour change, as opposed to quick fixes.

Resources like meditation/mindfulness training, therapy, counselling services and wellness apps will offer employees a variety of options to find out which works best for their needs, eventually making a connection between mental and physical health, and encouraging activities which lead to increased physical health, such as step challenges or just generally moving more, could also have big benefits.

For example, recent research has shown that on average, those who walk more, ideally sustaining a healthy physical activity habit of at least 5,000 steps per day three times per week for two years, can add between 2.5 years (for men) and three years (for women) to their life expectancy[7]. In order to promote physical health, initiatives like standing desks, gym membership, access to health & nutrition apps, walks and physical activity competitions can also be implemented to improve employee health and energy levels.

Additionally, employers can ensure the programme provides tools in order to promote personal wellbeing in and outside the workplace, such as articles, videos, or habit trackers. There are a number of healthy habits – both physical and mental – which we can establish to support our mental health and wellness on a daily basis. In fact, increased exercise, ideally around 150 minutes per week, can help dramatically reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and may even be more effective than medication or counselling[8].

Finally, employers can also offer access to mental health treatment, as well as resources such as digital cognitive behavioural therapy (dCBT) – self-guided training which has proven effective for preventing and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Having insurance coverage for mental health services also ensures employees can access professional care.

Overall, employers have a responsibility to provide support for employees, especially as employees increasingly expect this. Focusing on prevention is key, avoiding the need for more serious treatment down the road. However, even with robust preventive measures, some employees will still experience mental health challenges requiring treatment. A strong approach covering the complete spectrum is necessary to create a truly mentally healthy workplace culture and to optimise employee wellbeing in the long term.

References

[1] Well-Being Report: A benchmark for Canadian health, https://www.dialogue.co/en/reports/well-being-score

[2]International Journal of Stress Management, https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/str

[3] Insurance Times, https://www.insurancetimes.co.uk/news/majority-of-insurance-sector-employees-say-they-have-too-much-to-do-at-work/1442601.article

[4] Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/292309/work-related-stress-depression-or-anxiety-among-workers-in-great-britain-gb/

[5] Freshworks, 2022

[6] AXA, https://www.axa.co.uk/newsroom/media-releases/2023/the-true-cost-of-running-on-empty-work-related-stress-costing-uk-economy-28bn-a-year/

[7] Vitality and the London School of Economics (LSE), accessed https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/walk-more-type-2-diabetes-study/

[8] Singh B, Olds T, Curtis R, et al. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2023;57:1203-1209. (https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/57/18/1203.citation-tools)

Dr Kylie Bennett
Vice President at Dialogue | Website | + posts

Dr. Kylie Bennett is Vice President, Mental Health Clinical Services, and the General Manager of Dialogue Australia at Dialogue Health Technologies Inc., global leader in digital health and wellness, delivering meaningful behaviour change to employees who need it most in order to live healthier lives. She is the co-founder of e-hub Health, acquired by Dialogue in May 2021, which delivers automated, online self-help programs for mental health.