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Recognising and managing stress

Beate O’Neil, Head of Wellness Consulting, PSHPC, explains what stress is, what causes it and what individuals and employers can do to help prevent and deal with it. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as: "The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work."

Recognising and managing stressRecognising and managing stress

Research carried out by Mind last year suggests that employers are not doing enough to tackle stress and employees are subsequently suffering in silence. The charity found that 45% of workers polled said that staff are expected to cope without mentioning stress at work and a third (31%) said that they would not be able to talk openly to their line manager if they felt stressed.

Signs of stress

Stress symptoms are numerous and diverse. They include aggression, withdrawal and non-responsiveness, increased heart rate, cold sweats, panic attacks, inability to cope with very standard tasks and unreasonable fears. In addition, sufferers could have a change of appetite, depend on alcohol, nicotine or recreational drugs more and feel:

  • Agitated and irritable
  • Overwhelmed and out of control
  • Unable to relax
  • Low self-esteem, lonely, worthless
  • Forgetful
  • Unable to make even small decisions – poor judgement
  • Pessimistic.

Catering and stress

Catering environments can be highly stressful due to the lack of control individuals have over their workload, the long hours, and the regularity of monotonous tasks. Employees are frequently expected to work at short notice, which can interfere with their personal life and, in addition, the work environment itself can sometimes be stressful, hostile or unpleasant.

Many workers in the industry also suffer stress due to financial concerns. Many are poorly paid and these worries have been exacerbated in recent times with the increased use of zero hours contracts, whereby employers are not obliged to guarantee any minimum working hours.

A survey by salaryexplorer.com put the stress index in the catering industry at 2.44 on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the most stressed. However, stress levels may be under-reported because high staff turnover in catering means the procedures that detect and deal with stress in industries with more permanent staff tend to be implemented far less here.

Managing employee stress

For managers to have the opportunity to recognise symptoms, it is important that they meet their staff on a one-to-one basis and adopt a supportive environment with an ‘open door’ approach whereby staff feel they can call on them to discuss any problems they are having.

Employees also need reassurance that reporting concerns about stress will be taken seriously and not create further problems for themselves. Company Absence and Stress Policies provide clarity for both managers and staff alike.

It is also vital to ensure that staff are clear on their roles within the organisation as stress often occurs when they are unsure of what is expected of them at work.

Some people are naturally more resilient to stress than others, but resilience can be taught through counselling and workshops so that difficult situations can be dealt with through action, rather than with anxiety, blaming others or feeling overwhelmed. The training involves teaching staff the importance of developing a positive attitude, understanding their feelings and why they’re having them, and cultivating feelings of optimism rather than a ‘glass half empty’ outlook on their situation.

Reducing stress levels

Recognising and managing stress

Other ideas employers could consider to reduce staff stress levels include:

  • Healthy initiatives: gym membership, encouraging healthy activities such as fun runs and walks, weight loss campaigns, and promoting reduction of caffeine consumption
  • Stress awareness days: raising awareness and reducing the stigma of stress
  • Work Life Balance Policy
  • Change of procedure: ensuring all employees are kept fully informed of any internal changes and have them explained fully
  • Making employees feel worthy and accomplished as well as enabling them to manage their time better.

Helping staff help themselves

There are many stress-busting techniques that individuals can initiate themselves to reduce their stress levels, such as yoga, meditation and regular physical exercise. It is also extremely useful for staff to interact with each other in and out of work hours to develop closer relationships whereby they can share problems and seek re-assurance from others who find themselves in the same stressful situations. Educating staff and encouraging their time together will also benefit you, the employer.

Employee benefits and stress relief

It is common knowledge that the catering industry attracts young, transitory workers and as a consequence there is often a belief that it is not worth investing in benefits, such as health insurance, for them. However, many employers may be unaware that Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be a very affordable, yet effective form of stress counselling for staff. Prices vary from one provider to another, but for a scheme of 50 staff, telephone counselling for £4.00 per employee per year would not be unreasonable. Alternatively you could offer each employee six face-to-face counselling sessions for approximately £7.25 per employee a year. Costs are likely to be more for businesses with very few employees.

If you do not have health insurance or an EAP programme, but you believe that you and/or your staff may need help with stress, it is advisable to contact charities such as Mind or the Samaritans, which offer free support for individuals and can also provide advice to managers on how to begin to tackle stress in their teams.

Further information

For more information on stress you can also visit:

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