Stress: the elephant in the boardroom

Stress - Elephant In The Boardroom
Do your boardroom discussions typically focus on targets, shareholder value, margins, five-year plans, quarterly results, headcount and competition and marketing plans? And ignore the elephant in the boardroom - stress?
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CEOs and Board Directors set the culture and values of a company, but often stress is a missing agenda item. Ignore it and you ignore risk. Here's why

A failure at board level to proactively address the issue of stress only continues to push it further underneath the organisational radar and the consequences are having a huge impact on both reputation and the bottom line. 

In Great Britain alone, the estimated cost of ill health from current working conditions is £15.4bn a year with 30.7 million working days lost due to work-related illness, 57% of those caused by stress, depression or anxiety (2017/18 figures from the Health & Safety Executive report). 

These alarming statistics were explored further in the 2018 annual CIPD survey examining practices in health, well-being and absence management in UK workplaces and highlighting key causal workplace trends. The facts were concerning:

37% of UK businesses (37%) saw an increase in stress-related absence reportedly due to heavy workloads and poor management style.

Only 50% of managers felt they had received the necessary training to manage stress in themselves and others. 

Only 32% of people surveyed said their leadership encouraged a focus on mental well-being through their actions and behaviours. 

Research shows the top 3 causes of stress-related absence represent a serious problem for senior leaders because they are cultural:

  1. Workloads/ volume of work  
  2. Management style/relationships at work 
  3. How organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in an organisation 

All of this supports a worrying truth around the lack of serious and proactive discussion at a leadership level.

Do your boardroom discussions typically focus on targets, shareholder value, margins, five-year plans, quarterly results, headcount and competition and marketing plans? According to Professor Sir Cary Cooper, Organisational & Health Psychologist, stress is an important item often missing from the boardroom agenda, which can have a dramatic impact on the bottom line. His work has identified that per individual employee, the estimated conservative financial benefit of improving psychological wellbeing is £1,201. That’s worth discussing.

From a bigger picture perspective, making psychological improvements to only 15% of a workforce of 34,000 people, equates to a productivity increase worth £6.1million. This alone is a valid reason why stress-related employee absence should earn a serious place for discussion around the boardroom table.

We all know bottom-line profits thrive when employee wellbeing, performance and productivity are optimised.

Whether these stress-related issues manifest in absenteeism or presenteeism, the organisation suffers. People are an organisations most important resource and performance and productivity can only be optimised when people are  healthy, engaged, focused and optimistic about the future – all fundamental signs of a resilient workplace culture. 

It’s far too easy for a suffering employee to hide behind a sea of business activity unnoticed, only for the repercussions to be starkly realised in missed deadlines, lost deals, poor teamwork and customer service and employee attrition. 

It makes good business sense to address stress and facilitate a culture of resilience and wellbeing. No individual, team or organisation are immune, in fact it is often an organisation’s top performers who are most at risk because they don’t know when to push, when to pivot and when to switch off.

Avoid the risk of pushing these issues underground

If resilient habits and behaviours are not forefront of an organisation’s culture, it just further succeeds in pushing these key issues further underground and this is definitely not the kind of problem that should be ignored: 

  • It puts your business at risk of legal action if it is found that appropriate steps to safeguard the wellbeing of leaders, managers and employees by enabling to take steps to actively manage their stress and wellbeing more resiliently.  
  • A reputational risk – that’s something you can’t put a price on. Hiring and training good employees is a long and expensive process. Attracting top talent is even harder if you have a reputation for letting good people crash and burn. It makes sense to safeguard your investment in people with a  well thought out and planned resilience strategy.

Learn to spot the warning signs of low resilience levels

  • High levels of stress  
  • Rise in absenteeism 
  • Fear and resistance to change 
  • Withdrawal  
  • Low morale and disengagement 
  • Rise in attrition 
  • Fractious relationships 
  • Lack of trust 
  • Lack of optimism 
  • Negativity and cynicism 
  • Low performance 
  • Lack of communication 

In tough times, it is tempting to take a hard-line approach towards tackling these issues by rolling out disciplinary measures or token workshops designed to only scratch the surface of what is actually a workplace culture issue and only succeeds in pushing the problem deeper.

Creating fear may bring short-term results but it is bound to create long-term problems which are harder to resolve. In fact, it is likely to be one of the causes of the problem in the first place.

The common approach towards tackling stress and psychological wellbeing highlights a tendency to engage in e.g. Mental Health First Aid measures, which is a great way to ensure employees, managers and leaders alike can spot the early signs of poor mental health and wellbeing. However, this does little to address the core cultural aspects necessary to enable organisations to directly and proactively promote or change the way they support their employees. 

Focusing on developing a culture of resilience enables both people and an organisation to thrive. Accelerating resilience improves profitability, loyalty and the not-to-be underestimated atmosphere in the office.

So what does all this tell us?

We’re progressively getting more stressed at work. Our line managers frustrate us, there’s too much work, and time is short. And when things escalate, the human, financial and employee branding costs of work-related stress are significant. Certainly significant enough to be a board room issue. Is it on your agenda?