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FOWI Guide

Psychological stressors and workplace interventions

Unlike physical health risks, all workers have the potential to be affected by psychological stressors.

Stress at work contributes significantly to the experience of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Introducing activities to address the experience of stress at work can help increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, and presenteeism and provide a safer and more positive workplace.

Best practice recommends that organisations engage in a complementary range of primary, secondary and tertiary interventions1:

  • Primary interventions: preventing stress by removing stressors from the environment through work redesign.
  • Secondary interventions: improving the way workers respond to stress by providing skills to improve resilience and coping.
  • Tertiary interventions: treating workers affected by mental health issues, supporting effective return to work.

Purpose of this guide

This guide will focus primarily on secondary interventions by outlining the range of available activities that support employees in the development of skills and personal resources to help manage and recover from work-related stress.

Typically, these programs can be useful to employees who are currently experiencing stress as well as those who need to develop the skills to cope with and recover from future stress.2 Given that no two organisations will have the same requirements, there are no hard and fast rules to follow. Using the information in this guide organisations are encouraged to reflect on the needs of their staff. For example, a consideration of the particular work demands present in the organisation may make one type of intervention more relevant than others.

It is recommended that secondary interventions be selected and implemented in consultation and collaboration with staff to ensure programs are effective in meeting their needs.

Further reading

Com Care have a webpage dedicated to building a resilient workforce, with resources on individual, job, organisation and team levels. They also have tips for building resilience.

Individual level coping and resilience tools

Resilience training

Resilience refers to an individual’s ability to adapt to or recover from challenges and adversity. Increased resilience can help buffer against the effects of unexpected changes in the organisation and the market in general. Resilience training has been associated with a number of well-being outcomes, including reduced stress and depression.

Best-practice recommendations are still emerging from the empirical research, making it difficult to make recommend specifications such as program duration or delivery mode. However, research consistently finds that resilience training outcomes are significantly improved when the program incorporates a cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) component. This approach directs employees to recognise the role of their thoughts and emotions in stress. By addressing maladaptive and negative thoughts, CBT helps individuals respond more appropriately to stressful situations to improve coping. Using this strategy, rather than directing employee attention away from the experience of stress, CBT-based resilience interventions teach employees to change their negative thoughts, emotions and behaviours into positive, optimistic and constructive responses.

Resilience training may be more important for some industries than others. For example, employees in the emergency services, healthcare and other highly volatile industries may benefit more from resilience training than others. Nevertheless, resilience is a useful skill for all employees to have in all industries.

An important note

Organisations should engage in activities that promote individual resilience and coping as one of several activities. Although resilience has been associated with positive outcomes, the effects are not as strong as organisations might expect.3,4 Promoting employee resilience is an important piece of the puzzle, but it by no means represents the complete picture.

Appropriate work design offers the highest level of protection against psychological harm as far as is reasonably practicable. Therefore, work design interventions that address the psychosocial risks of stress by decreasing job demands and increasing job resources to control the causes of stress in the work environment should be the primary focus of organisations’ interventions. Ideally, work design should be prioritised over building resilience and coping. Investing in providing employees with skills to cope with stress can help during short periods of high demands, however chronic exposure to stressful environments still presents significant risk of harm.

Physical activity programs

Physical activity programs are often implemented as part of a broader well-being strategy to help individuals with resilience and coping. Such programs allow employees an outlet to physically release tension from work, to maintain fitness and physical health and to improve mood. There are several significant and well-documented positive outcomes of physical activity on individual well-being outcomes in employees including improved physical health, reduced risk for depression, anxiety, stress, and reduced symptoms of fatigue. This approach may be particularly relevant to organisations and roles that require staff to remain sitting for long periods of time. Physical exercise can help re-energise staff and promote physical and psychological well-being. Further these programs can have implications for organisational outcomes including reduced absenteeism and presenteeism.5

Organisational engagement in physical activity programs can range from corporate fitness memberships to promotion of incidental activity initiatives, such as step challenges, walking meetings or walk to work initiatives. It is important that organisations make these programs as accessible as possible. For example, for many employees it is not reasonable to attend classes after work due to family commitments and commute times. To ensure maximum uptake, consult with staff about what type of physical activity programs they would like and when would be most convenient to ensure the organisation achieves maximum return on investment.

Resource

The Australian government Department of Health has created a Healthy Workers portal – including ‘move more’ resources to help workplaces implement workplace physical activity policy.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a self awareness tool based on being in the present. Programs involve exercises that help participants become aware of the ‘here and now’ by directing attention to the body and environment and paying full attention to experience in the moment. Research shows that keeping attention on current experiences avoids thoughts of the past or future.6

Generally, these programs are run by an experienced instructor who guides the group through the practice. The skills that participants develop during the training are highly transferable outside of the practice. For example, participants pick up techniques and skills that allow them to focus better on their work and minimise the impact of distracting thoughts or distractions in the environment.

Research has indicated that mindfulness-based interventions can improve the experience of stress and psychological distress and reduced burnout, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion.7 It also helps improve individuals’ stress response by lowering the production of the stress hormone cortisol.8 Further, the practice of mindfulness is associated with reduced work-family conflict, improved sleep quality and job satisfaction.9

Resource

The Black Dog Institute has produced a guide on mindfulness in every day life.

Time management skill development

Employees are often working under time pressure, increasing the experience of stress at work. Time management techniques, in some circumstances, can improve resilience and coping. Time management interventions assist employees to organise, prioritise and schedule their work activities to achieve their short and long-term goals.10 A study found that the use of time management techniques helped reduce the effect of job demands on strain.11 In addition to the ability to achieve their work tasks, effective time management gives employees a greater sense of control at work. Also, planning work and tasks can help increase employees’ role clarity.

Resource

Beyond Blue’s Heads Up website contains some useful tips for managing your work role – including scheduling work, taking breaks, realistic deadlines and limiting extra work or out of core work hours.

Goal setting activities

Setting practical and realistic short, medium and long term goals is a useful way to help employees manage their stress at work. Teaching employees to set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant with a time-frame (SMART) helps them define the concrete steps required for achievement. This helps reduce feelings of being overwhelmed by their workload.12 SMART goals remove the ambiguity in the evaluation of performance and therefore help to reduce stress. Employees also experience a self-esteem boost and a sense of satisfaction and pride when they achieve a goal. It can be helpful to guide employees through the process of setting SMART goals to ensure they are appropriately structured and planned.

Conflict resolution training

Good working relationships are vital to employee well-being, productivity and work quality. Interpersonal conflict and disputes that are left unresolved can negatively affect these work outcomes and result in stress, and anxiety and tension at work. The use of more constructive conflict resolution techniques results in a reduction in the experience of stress at work.13

Organisations have a large role to play in supporting good working relationships (as part of the psychosocial risks element of the Thrive at Work Framework) and can help to do so by equipping employees with tools to resolve disagreements and build positive relationships. This style of training may be of particular value to organisations with highly interconnected work and regularly requires staff to work in teams. Effective conflict resolution supports the growth of a more harmonious working environment to foster cooperation and collaboration.

Resource

Managing relationships and work-related stress is one of the psychosocial risks discussed the Thrive at Work Framework. Safe Work NSW has a tip sheet on managing relationships (including conflict).

References

  1. LaMontge et al. (2014). Workplace mental health: Developing an integrated intervention approach. BMC Psychiatry, 14(1), 1-11.
  2. Noblet, A., & LaMontagne, A.D. (2006). The role of workplace mental health promotion in addressing job stress. Health Promotion International, 21(4), 346-353. 
  3. Tan, L., Wang, M., Modini, M., Joyce, S., Mykletun, A., Christensen, H., Harvey, S. B. (2014). Preventing the development of depression at work: A systematic review and meta-analysis of universal interventions in the workplace. BMC Medicine, 12(74), 1-12.
  4. Vanhove, A. J., Herian, M. N., Perez, A. L., Harms, P. D., & Lester, P. B. (2016). Can resilience be developed at work? A meta‐analytic review of resilience‐building programme effectiveness. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology89(2), 278-307.
  5. Cancelliere, C., Cassidy, J. D., Ammendolia, C., & Côté, P. (2011). Are workplace health promotion programs effective at improving presenteeism in workers? A systematic review and best evidence synthesis of the literature. BMC Public Health, 11(1).
  6. Dame, E. (2011). Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37(4), 997-1018.
  7. Janssen, M., Heerkens, Y., Kuijer, W., van der Heijden, & Engels, J. (2018). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on employees’ mental health: A systematic review. PLOS One, 13(1), 1-38.
  8. Matousek, R. H., Dobkin, P. L. & Pruessner, J. (2010). Cortisol as a marker for improvement in mindfulness-based stress reduction. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 16(1), 13-19.
  9. Good, D. J., et al. (2015). Contemplating mindfulness at work: An integrative review. Journal of Management, 42(1), 114-142.
  10. Glazer, S., & Liu, C. (2017). Work, stress, coping, and stress management. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology.
  11. Jex, S. M. & Elacqua, T. C. (2010). Time management as a moderator of relationships between stressors and employee strain. An International Journal of Work, Health, & Organisation, 13(2), 182-191.
  12. Richardson, K. M. & Rothstein, H. R. (2008). Effects of occupational stress management intervention programs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 13(1), 69-93
  13. Friedman, R. A., Tidd, S. T., Currall, S. C., & Tsai, J. C. (2000). What goes around comes around: The impact of personal conflict style on work conflict and stress. International Journal of Conflict Management, 11(1), 32-55.