How workplace wellbeing can help reduce workplace stress and anxiety

4 November 2019

Many small businesses are starting to recognise the correlation between employee wellbeing, engagement and the bottom line. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, the average UK working week for full time workers clocks in at just over 37 hours1, meaning most employees spend a considerable amount of time in the office. Therefore, it’s essential that employees feel happy, healthy and valued. 

According to MIND, one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year2. Despite this, poor mental health remains a taboo subject compared to physical illness in many professions. 

What is the difference between stress and anxiety? 

Stress is a heightened response to pressure. In situations where we feel challenged or threatened, changes in brain chemistry makes the heart beat faster. The body releases stress hormones, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ response. Instinctively, this either spurs us on to achieve or, conversely, completely unsettles us. The feeling tends to be cumulative, triggered by ‘stressors’ that can come from work and/or home life. An unmanageable workload, tight deadlines and a looming event like public speaking, can all cause a level of worry that can feel paralysing and upsetting. Symptoms of stress include:

  • Feelings of constant worry or nervousness, combined with an inability to relax
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Low self-esteem
  • Nausea

Anxiety is a reaction to stress. An anxious feeling is often out of proportion to the real or imagined “threat”. It’s the fear that something bad will happen and that individual won’t be able to handle it. When we’re feeling stressed, we know what’s worrying us. With anxiety however, we lose sense of precisely what’s worrying us. Therefore, the reaction is the problem, rather than a specific trigger. 

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Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • A prolonged sense of dread, or fearing the worst - and that, if you stop worrying, something bad will happen
  • ‘Derealisation’ where you feel disconnected from the world around you, or like the world is speeding up or slowing down 
  • Worrying about anxiety itself - e.g. worrying about when a panic attack might happen 
  • Constantly needing reassurance from other people or a concern that people are angry or upset with you

How does stress affect an employee - and the wider business? 

Employees suffering in silence are at risk of feeling anxious and overwhelmed, which can trigger panic attacks. They may seem short-tempered and struggle to concentrate, which hampers productivity and performance. A small team may feel the ripple effect, as workloads mount to accommodate the struggling employee and morale plummets. Low resilience in a small team can impact business performance and success.

One report found that SMEs are close to breaking point because of an unhealthy ‘always-on’ culture3. After all, work-related stress doesn’t just disappear when employees leave the office. A lack of down-time can contribute to problems such as headaches, stomach aches and sleep disturbances. Chronic stress can result in insomnia, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system, which may lead to burnout. It can also contribute to health conditions such as depression, obesity and heart disease. Compounding the problem, people who experience excessive stress sometimes deal with it in unhealthy ways such as overeating, eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol.

Despite the risks, our recent study found that more than four-fifths (82%) of SME employers do not have a health and wellbeing strategy. Moreover, over a third (39%) of employees feel they would see an improvement in their productivity if their employer introduced a wellbeing strategy - with 22% more likely to stay in their current job.

How do you improve workplace wellbeing? 

A workplace culture that prioritises employees’ wellbeing can be beneficial for employee retention, and could also help to attract top quality new recruits to the business. Here are some manageable tips to help protect the wellbeing of your people:

  • Educate your team: Highlight the symptoms of stress, so your employees sense when they’re starting to feel overwhelmed. They can also then help others who look like they’re struggling.
  • Encourage work-life balance: Position yourself as an employer, and organisation, that cares about their people - and prove it. Invite your employees to take regular breaks, implement flexible working or work from home days if possible, and clearly stipulate that there is no expectation to email or call for work purposes beyond office hours. After all, a study by CV-Library found that an alarming 72% of UK workers engage in work-related communications in their free time4. It’s your responsibility to lead by example, shutting off once the working day is over (which will benefit you, too).
  • Operate an open-door policy: Offer your team opportunities to talk - whether it’s organising a face-to-face meeting with you, HR or whoever they feel comfortable with, or putting a difficult conversation into an email. Be ready to discuss any problems that arise whenever it’s needed.
  • Offer wellbeing benefits: From private health insurance, reflexology and/or dental care, to a day’s holiday for their birthday, show your people you care. Remind them of the benefits periodically, as it’s easy to forget the fantastic benefits on offer amid a bustling career.
  • Nurture collaboration: Arrange regular catch-ups between teams, so employees have an opportunity to voice that they’re workload is looking heavy or they’re buckling under the pressure. This can help with re-allocating workload or arranging additional resource to cover tasks.
  • Promote a healthy workplace: Protecting the physical wellbeing of your employees is vital to reduce sickness absence and ensure they are delivering top quality work. While an in-house gym may not be feasible, setting up a walking club or HIIT class at lunchtimes could go a long way. Affordable perks like free fruit - as often as your organisation can afford - will also go a long way.
  • Connect employees with the right line managers: An inspiring, motivating line manager who your employee feels comfortable talking to - whether it’s concern over workload or a personal matter that’s causing sleepless nights - can be an invaluable outlet. A line manager that supports an employee, and celebrates their achievements, can bolster confidence and aid progression. Consider personalities closely - matching an employee with the wrong line manager could further stifle them.

No SME is too small to have a clear wellbeing strategy. It doesn’t need to be formal or admin-heavy - it’s simply about open communication and offering opportunities to improve mental and physical wellness. Prioritising your people can go a long way towards a cohesive, productive team and greater business success. 

AXA Health small business health insurance

At AXA Health, our small business health insurance* aims to get you and your team back to work quickly through prompt access to diagnosis and eligible treatment. Our small business health insurance can have a number of benefits for you, your team and your business. These can include:

  • Reduced time out of work through prompt access to diagnosis and eligible treatment
  • Great incentive for employee retention and recruitment
  • Unlimited access to our 24/7 online GP service, AXA Doctor at Hand (powered by Doctor Care Anywhere). Doctor Care Anywhere's fair usage policy applies
  • More control over your medical appointments at a time and location that suits you
  • Peace of mind with access to 24/7** health information and support from our expert team of midwives, nurses, counsellors and pharmacists

Find out more about our small business health insurance, including what we do and don’t cover, and get a quote today

*Stress is not covered under our plans

**Health at Hand nurses and counsellors are available 24/7. Midwives and pharmacists are available from 8am – 8pm Monday to Friday, from 8am – 4pm on Saturday, and from 8am – 12pm on Sunday.

Sources and references

1Office for National Statistics, 2019 


3Advanced, 2018 

4CV-Library, 2018