How to design stress OUT of your workplace (A 5-minute read)

December 13, 2019    Becky Wilkins     

Work is the most common cause of stress for adults in the UK.

In fact, 25% [1] of workers say they struggle to be as productive as normal when under stress and 22% [2] say it makes them feel dis-engaged at work.  Almost half (45% [3]) of UK employees say their employer doesn’t help to reduce stress at work or improve mental wellbeing either, so it’s perhaps no surprise that work-related stress accounts for over half of all working days lost to ill health in Great Britain – at a staggering cost of £5 billion [4] per year.

Thankfully, employee wellbeing is climbing the boardroom agenda and there have been some innovative examples of employers really investing in the emotional and mental needs of their people.

Smoothie brand Innocent encourages its staff to practice mindfulness and has mental health resources on-hand including a confidential employee assistance programme [5]. Professional services firm EY provides free health assessments and a counselling service for employees and their families [6], while consumer goods company Unilever [7] has rolled-out ‘purpose workshops’ to help employees identify their career goals and encourage internal reflection.

While true wellbeing isn’t all about counselling and yoga – these employers show that big businesses are increasingly understanding the value of investing in their people beyond just skills and benefits; they have a duty of care.  They also know that by nurturing and caring for staff they can unlock greater productivity gains.

For employers that don’t have big-brand budgets but are keen to emulate their wellbeing successes, there are a number of smaller steps that can be taken to put employees on the path to greater physical, emotional and mental good health.  It starts with actively designing stress out of your culture and workplace with three key considerations:

FLEXIBILITY: A survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management revealed that 85% of managers feel flexible working enhances staff wellbeing and reduces overall stress, 65 percent say it encourages more commitment and motivation and 78% say it helps staff retention[8].

Greater control over when, where and how we work is linked to improved wellbeing and productivity. Employers striving to improve wellbeing should look at how they can introduce flexibility into the workplace. The more control employees have, the less likely ‘temporary stresses’ will develop into the chronic stress which can be debilitating to employees and prove costly for employers.

Firms keen to embrace greater flexibility need to clarify what they can realistically offer employees and communicate this well via a flexible working policy.  It’s also important to remember that as more employees work remotely it can become more difficult to monitor wellbeing and ensure inclusion. Consider how you can support all workers’ mental and physical wellbeing needs is whether they’re occasional home-workers, gig-workers or office-based employees.

CULTURE : In order to design stress out of the workplace, you have to design it out of your culture. This requires real commitment and follow-through – you need to live and die by it.

Before devising a wellbeing policy, it can be useful to gain a full and accurate picture of your culture and whether it is supporting your business ambitions and wellbeing objectives.  Are line managers able to spot staff who are struggling and equipped to help? How much is poor wellbeing costing your organisation? What emotional, physical and mental support can be given to employees so that they feel valued and nurtured?  Do you have a culture of inclusiveness, teamwork and support?  How can you align wellbeing with your CSR activities so that employees feel engaged with their local community and invested in your agenda?

Once upon a time wellbeing was about benefits.  Now it’s about meeting employees’ baseline expectations and that includes offering a supportive workplace culture .  Research by ACAS[9] found that occupational stress can be reduced through less work-life conflict and interruption. Giving due consideration to psychological safety –the idea that employees feel able to be their true selves without fear of negative consequences – is part of creating a conflict-free culture.

A commitment to wellbeing should be tangible. It should be seen in how staff talk to each other and collaborate, how easy it is to be productive and effective, the way appraisals are approached, how flexibility is facilitated and how supportive, open and friendly the team is.

WORKPLACE DESIGN: It’s important to feel supported and well equipped to do your job. In spatial terms this means having the right environments and tools to thrive and minimising the factors that can compromise it.

The rise in activity based working – where employees choose different work settings to suit their work task, mood or personal preference – is a key part of designing stress out of workplaces. By creating dedicated spaces for quiet work, telephone calls, relaxation, sociability and collaboration for example – employees are able to take themselves away from distraction and disruption to a space perfectly suited to their needs.

It’s wise to remember that employees need spaces  to detach, recharge and socialise just as much as they need spaces related to their core tasks.  Staff that are healthy are typically happy and this has countless benefits for employers – including engagement, loyalty and discretionary effort to name but a few.

Giving thought to how you can embrace biophilic design is also a powerful way to remove stress from the workplace – access to natural light, views, outdoor spaces, fresh air and even bird song can all help to improve focus, memory function, motivation and productivity.   Similarly, nature inspired colours, finishes and the inclusion of plants build on this further and can be used to create spaces with visually interesting, open and inspiring effects.

A recent study revealed that employees consider workplace noise a serious cause of stress and that they worry they’ll be overhead or have their privacy compromised.  This can be addressed through appropriate use of sound-proofing with partitions, acoustic baffles, meeting rooms and sound-deadening furniture  – as well as looking at the office layout as a whole to ensure that co-location of departments is done with noise-management in mind.

There is no quick fix to designing stress out of your workplace. While there are clear steps to improve the design of your workplace and the way in which people work alone and together with workplace and technology tools – the process almost certainly begins with a closer inspection of your workplace culture and a true understanding of what poor wellbeing is costing your business.

Workplace consultants can help you to identify your true challenges, needs and opportunities and show you how to create a workplace that embodies wellbeing and unlocks the true potential of happy, healthy and highly motivated people.

[1] Figures take from the 2018 UK Workplace Stress Survey

[1] Figures take from the 2018 UK Workplace Stress Survey

[1] Figures take from the 2018 UK Workplace Stress Survey

[1] CBI figures quoted here:






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