It’s National Stress Awareness Day today (Wednesday 2nd November) and whilst there has been lots of press attention on rising stress-related absences in UK businesses, managing stress in the workplace remains a massive challenge for many UK employers.

The biggest concern for many companies is the cost of stress-related absence, which according to estimates is costing the UK economy £6.5bn a year.

We are often approached to write about stress and we always say that it is important that businesses recognise that behind every ‘stress cost’ is a human being. These individuals may be struggling to manage financially on sick pay, receiving little support from overworked mental health services or struggling to get a GP appointment and impacted by an illness that affects every single aspect of their lives.

Research published by the CIPD in July suggested that employers are taking a reactive approach to employees’ mental health problems, rather than preventative one.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are measures a company can take to get on top of stress related problems and prevent them from escalating.

Firstly it is important to have a better understanding of stress-related issues. The CIPD’s ‘Employee Outlook: Focus on mental health in the workplace 2016’ report highlighted that three in ten people (31%) have experienced mental health problems at work. This figure is even higher for female employees at 36% and 46% for people working in the voluntary sector.

Research from the UK job site, CV-Library found over half of workers (53.2%) reported that stress is an issue in their current workplace, with nearly two-thirds (61.9%) believing that their employer looks down on stressed out workers.

We also recommend that most employers need to improve their communication about stress and mental health and ensure there aren’t any stigmas surrounding mental illness. They need to engage with stressed employees before they reach the stage where they need to take long-term absence.

Line manager training is vital – they see employees every day. With the support of occupational health, they can be trained to spot the signs of stress and depression early on.

Companies also need to take short-term absences more seriously. If employees are off sick ensure they complete a return to work form about the absence. Follow this up with a gentle return to work interview.

When conducting a return to work interview, interviewers need to ‘see beyond the words’. Research shows people would rather be seen as ‘lazy’ than ‘mentally ill’, and are likely to use almost any other excuse than mental ill health for taking time off work.

During the return to work interview it’s important to gently probe the given reason for absence. Do they seem tired or sad? Is there something that ‘feels’ not quite right? Occupational health can train line managers on the signs to look out for.

Again, ask if the employee needs support, and let them know a) that you care and b) remind them of any support provisions within the company benefits package or within occupational health. If there isn’t an occupational health team in place, consider using an external professional.

Sometimes, just offering gentle support and ‘someone to talk to’ can make a massive difference.

Once a mental health issue is identified, consider if flexible working arrangements or special adjustments would help. Could the employee work from home one day a week, or come to work later if, for example, their medication makes them sleepy first thing in the mornings? Making a small change early on can make a big difference to the outcome for both the business and the employee.

Mental health conversations can be uncomfortable in organisations where mental health carries a stigma. That means the culture needs to change, not that we need to avoid having conversations.

It’s great to see days like National Stress Awareness day raising the profile of mental illness at work – I’d like, however, to have a culture where supporting sufferers is already part of the agenda.By Adrian Lewis, director, Activ Absence