It’s time to rethink stress management

A better understanding of our fight-or-flight biochemistry can help HR professionals deal with the impact of stress, says Pete Clark

Stress and anxiety are among the leading causes of health-related absence from work, with most humans ill-designed to manage the stresses of modern life and employment.

Our biochemistry hasn’t changed much since our hunter gatherer days. What has changed dramatically is how we spend our time and the demands made on us. We have kept our human fight-or-flight response to anxiety-inducing situations, which served us well with immediate life-threats like a challenge from another hunter or a wild animal. Then, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response it sparked, enabled us to either fight back or run away.

Today, while anxiety still triggers the same response, the situations that cause our anxiety – like a difficult conversation with a boss or a deadline – cannot really be resolved this way. This causes two issues. Our biological defence from anxiety proves useless and the nervous energy this defence creates can cause anxiety to heighten.

Work-related stress, when it goes unmanaged by our traditional human stress management techniques, causes greater stress and can make symptoms worse. At the same time, employers have a hard time in both supporting staff and providing a working environment that alleviates those stressful symptoms while remaining productive. So here are my seven tips for managers:

  1. A great starting point is for managers to have a good understanding of what stress and anxiety are, how they work and how the body reacts to them. There are lots of great training programmes for managers available to provide that training.
  2. The real key though is having a deep understanding of the demands of a working role, how it impacts on different employees and how to communicate openly and without judgement.
  3. When managing an anxious individual we should try to empathise, if we can (some people, even some good managers, are weak at empathy), and sympathise if not, without condescending.
  4. We should make clear that it is OK to talk about our mental health, while acknowledging that in the workplace there are certain expectations that need to be met, even if the employee is having health difficulties.
  5. We should be prepared to make reasonable adjustments (and know ahead of time what is really reasonable for the business).
  6. We should be honest, transparent and direct with our employees, especially if they are having a difficult time.
  7. Most importantly, we must keep communicating. Ignoring an employee’s difficulties and hoping they can work out a solution on their own will never lead to a good relationship with a productive team member.

Pete Clark is head of corporate and public sector service development at HCML, in charge of occupational rehabilitation