How to ensure stressed individuals find benefits to help them

Stress can often be a highly difficult issue for employers to spot, which means that access to discreet and confidential employee programmes can provide a vital lifeline for staff, says Kate Donovan

Stress can be a slippery fellow. It can’t be identified by a hacking cough and it renders bandages superfluous. But that’s not to say the signs can’t be spotted. Whether or not the condition is obvious, employers should make sure that the stress-relieving benefits are clearly communicated to all staff so that they can call upon on them if they wish.

Admitting to stress still carries a negative stigma for some staff, which is why it is vital for employers to spot that an employee is suffering. However, identifying the problem is often tricky. Belinda Hall, medical services manager at Capita Insurance Services, which provides the Hospital Saturday Fund’s helpline, says: “A stressed employee can be difficult to spot unless they openly state they are stressed.”

But stressed employees rarely tick the same symptom boxes. Peter Mills, chief medical officer at VieLife, says: “People manifest stress in different ways.” Telltale signs can include a reduction in the quantity and quality of their work, frequent short periods of absence, increased alcohol consumption, poor time keeping or an individual being tearful or withdrawn.

While benefits such as gym membership, flexible working arrangements and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are useful stress busters, it is vital managers are involved in helping to ensure that employees in need are aware of, and able to access, the right benefits. Raman Sankaran, member services director at LHF Healthplan, says: “It’s important to keep reinforcing the whole package of available benefits. If a line manager can work with an individual they may well between them highlight elements of the package that could [help].”

To ensure employees receive access to the right stress-relieving benefits, employers should offer as many forums for expression as possible, such as advice on the end of a telephone helpline, email or online generic advice. However, if these resources are not sufficiently communicated, they become pointless. “Employers should ensure that all staff are fully aware of what services are available to them and regularly remind them to ensure they get full use of these benefits,” says Hall.

Perks can also be communicated using methods such as cards for employees to carry in their wallets, posters, leaflets, briefings, and intranet. “It is always important to make clear what services are available and confirm that EAPs are completely confidential and anything discussed does not get fed back to their employer. This helps [employees] to feel much more comfortable in [using] an EAP or similar service,” adds Hall.

If employers are unable to spot the visible signs of stress, management information generated by EAP usage may be able to help. Although, due to confidentiality, employers cannot access specific information about individuals, the data can indicate where potential hot spots lie within an organisation.

There are also other low-cost approaches to identifying stress hot spots in an organisation. These include specific stress audits or an annual general health risk assessment. Yet, Mills believes such measures can get people talking about stress. “Often a confidential, slightly impersonal online setting can be the ideal starting point,” he explains.

Early identification can be crucial in preventing stress taking a firm grip, so the role of managers is key. But Mills says managers are often given limited training on employee health. “It’s important for managers to understand what stress is and how it manifests itself in different people.†

Appraisals can provide insight into the health of an individual. Sankaran explains that once an individual is identified as suffering the line manager should, with the employee, put a development plan in place. This might be as simple as holding regular conversations or reducing an employee’s workload.

Stefan Wisbauer, managing director of Ihealth, says managers can be incentivised through personal development goals to focus on employee health linking their performance to possible promotion or salary increases. In particular, they can be instrumental in identifying sources of stress before they become a problem. “There are a few firms who have very sophisticated IT systems which profile people,” he says. Managers can be given training on how to look out for possible sources of tension within their team and can be taught how best to manage different personality types.†

If you read nothing else read this…

  • There are certain physical signs that can reveal stress sufferers but surveys and audits can be used to identify potential hot spots where the condition is likely to occur.
  • Line managers have an important role to play in managing stress by trying to prevent problems before they arise and offering support to sufferers.
  • Communication is key in ensuring that staff in need can access the right benefits to tackle the issue.