Mitigating stress in the practice

09 December 2020
4 min read

Tina Chander discusses ways to improve the way you work.

The coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly increased anxiety levels for almost everyone, but workplace stress remains an issue, with dental practice employees likely to be amongst the most affected given the higher risk of infection related to aerosol-generating procedures.

Apart from the risk of infection, maintaining good mental health during the current crisis will be critical, with Public Health England offering guidance to help individuals manage their mental health.

The UK’s leading mental health charities are also expanding their support services, which practice managers may wish to inform colleagues about, if they have not already done so.

There are good reasons for a business to try and mitigate stress in the workplace, starting with their duty of care towards their employees, particularly given the current situation. It’s also important to note that businesses failing to act may face a slew of workplace personal injury claims.

The staggered return to work for most practices began in earnest in June, yet self-isolation and quarantine remain common themes and there are likely to be a significant number of individuals struggling to cope with extended periods of loneliness.

Practices must do all they can to monitor the wellbeing of their employees, following the same protocols as usual to ensure everyone is healthy and working productively, despite the unusual and new challenges being faced.

Impact on mental health
Key triggers identified for work-related stress include workload pressures, workplace interpersonal relationships and changes at work. Given the current economic disruption, job insecurity and social distancing, these factors are likely to be amplified.

In some businesses, the loss of daily routine and face-to-face contact can create a lot of stress for colleagues, especially if they’re finding it difficult to remain productive and complete tasks when working alone.

Naturally, there will also be a lot of people concerned about coronavirus from a health perspective, particularly if they are themselves, or have friends or relatives, in a high-risk category. For these people, it can be difficult to remain focused, causing them to fall behind in their work.

The guidance on how to treat dental patients safely is constantly being updated, with information relating to aerosol-generating procedures likely to increase anxiety in some staff members, who may perceive there to be a high risk of infection given the restrictions around fallow periods.

Under these circumstances, it can be tempting to ignore the stress issue and concentrate on core activities, but the impact on the workforce can be so severe that businesses should consider some relatively simple steps.

Risk assessment
One course of action for practice managers to implement is a ‘stress risk assessment’, which will enable them to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress, whilst taking steps to minimise their impact.

Given the unprecedented scale of upheaval, any existing risk assessment may not be fit for purpose, so performing a new assessment will demonstrate a responsive and flexible attitude toward protecting the workforce.

Many employers may have completed risk assessments during the first lockdown, however conducting a new and updated risk assessment that considers the changing guidance from the CDO will ensure that employers can adapt to new challenges that may have arisen.

A new risk assessment should seek to address potential problems such as whether the workforce has adequate space to work, whether they have any concerns arising from lone-working or whether there are any potential new risks from increasing patient contact.

By identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them, a business can demonstrate at any later date that it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care.

Welfare and mental health
It’s crucial that employees are adequately supported throughout this challenging period, with managers increasing the number of one on-one meetings to monitor worker welfare, whilst familiarising themselves with the signs of stress and anxiety. Where necessary, workers should be made aware of employee assistance programmes and taught coping strategies. Preparing individuals in case they begin to encounter difficulties will certainly be a positive move.

For those in need of support, it can be difficult to reach out and ask for help if they feel distant from colleagues and senior members of staff who would typically offer advice.

Therefore, it’s crucial that employers update their stress risk assessments and continue to regularly monitor their colleagues, providing opportunities for employees to interact remotely if necessary and reconnect with colleagues while returning to work.

Company policies
Businesses may consider implementing specific coronavirus, flexible working and homeworking policies, but in addition to this they may also wish to consider implementing a ‘stress at work’ policy, which can provide guidance to employees on how to handle stress at work, seek support from their employer and this can also include details of support services, if necessary.

Not only will this protect the business by implementing procedural changes and providing guidance for the workforce, but it will also provide a level of comfort to the workforce who will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the crisis.

This can relieve a lot of pressure for employees, as they feel reassured that their employer is making an effort to support them should they need it. It also demonstrates that the business is paying attention to the needs of its employees and is committed to their health and wellbeing.

Businesses should ensure the lines of communication between the workforce, line managers, the HR team and health and safety managers are open and accessible.

The workforce should be encouraged to discuss their stress and managers should respond with consistent messaging, whilst noting any shared occurrences which might point to a serious issue.

If claims concerning covid-related stress emerge, the businesses in the strongest position will be those that can demonstrate they took the issue seriously, whilst pointing to a recorded risk assessment and structured engagement with employees throughout.