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Managing stress in small businesses

Stress is now the UK’s single biggest cause of sickness, affecting one in five workers, according to the Health & Safety Executive and small firms are not immune from its effects. “Stress in the workplace has increased significantly,” says Cary Cooper, leading stress expert and The 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School. “Organisations of all sizes are now very lean. There are fewer people in the workplace, they are working longer hours and they feel more insecure about their jobs. The knock-on effect is more stress, anxiety and depression.”

In addition, he adds, work is intruding into many of our lives outside work, with many of us continually checking for emails with our smartphones.

Stress versus pressure

Cooper says there is a big difference between stress and pressure. “Pressure is a good thing - it can stimulate and motivate. But it becomes stress when it exceeds your ability to cope,” he warns.

“Small-business owners are often very good at spotting stress in their staff, because they know each and every one of them well and know that every person counts. But they’re often not so good at realising how stressed they are. And if the boss is stressed, it can filter down to the rest of the team.”

Stress reduction advice

Cooper says delegating more tasks and responsibility can help business owners to reduce their stress levels, although, as he accepts, this is something that many owners struggle with.

“Secondly, you must try to ensure that you’re not working consistently long hours and that you invest more time in your family and outside interests, so when you come to work you feel refreshed and more able to deal with the pressures of your job. This means not accessing emails in the evenings and while on holidays. And finally, you need to engage in as much physical activity as time permits - at least three times a week,” he advises.

Tell tale signs

But what ate the tell tale signs that someone is suffering from excessive stress? Cooper replies: “Look for behaviour changes - people who are normally sociable no longer joining others for lunch; someone who is more aggressive in meetings or who seems to have lost their sense of humour. Another sign is that they find it increasingly difficult to make decisions.”

Stress in staff may be caused by anything from long hours and unrealistic deadlines to lack of recognition, poor line management or even bullying at work.

Managing stress

When an owner or manager recognises that one of their employees seems to be stressed out, Cooper recommends having a one-to-one conversation in private to identify the cause(s). “The solution is always in the hands of the person with the problem,” he reveals.

“The key ways to minimise stress in staff is to manage with praise and reward not criticism; be open about how the business is doing; give time off in lieu when staff work long hours; and offer flexible working arrangements to those that want them.” Work-life balance is key, Cooper stresses. “Money is not the big driver,” he says, “time off with family and friends is far more valuable.”

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Next step:

Visit the Health and Safety Executive website for advice about dealing with workplace stress