In a tough economic climate, workloads inevitably grow and stress can escalate – with a devastating impact on performance and productivity. But there are ways to equip your teams to cope with the pressure of management, as Scott Beagrie finds out
Stress has become synonymous with today’s fast-paced lifestyle and, for the majority of people, it’s a given that there will be times when their job becomes highly stressful. But the better able an individual feels able to cope with stress the less disruptive it will be on their life and work. In fact, a manager’s ability to cope with stress and balance their workload has a direct impact on their performance and happiness, according to new research by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM). In the report,The pursuit of happiness: positivity and performance among UK managers, the top 100 performers rated themselves highly in their ability to cope with stress (80 out of 100) while those who rated themselves lowest (41) were the worst performers.
ILM’s research also found that a degree of stress can actually aid performance, with employees who experience no stress (and the very stressed) performing least well while those who are “somewhat” or “not very stressed” perform best. Nonetheless, stress can easily get out of control and its potential negative impact on both performance and workforce health should never be underestimated by employers.
As well as now being the leading cause of long-term absence, stress is responsible for seven out of 10 visits to the doctor, suggests research by employee assistance provider ComPysch. “So even if an individual is off with a cold or the flu, musculoskeletal conditions or another ailment, stress could be one of the main contributory factors to their illness,” says Neil Shah, director at the Stress Management Society. He also cautions employers that they have a legal duty of care to ensure their workforces don’t suffer the negative effects of stress under the 2008 Health and Safety at Work Act.
1. Start before it begins
The best approach to dealing with stress in the workplace is a preventative one. Gordon Tinline, director at Robertson Cooper, a wellbeing, engagement and resilience specialist, urges employers to take the steps necessary to “de-stress” the working environment to prevent it from building in the first place and points to the six “essentials” of workplace wellbeing: resources and communication; working relationships; control; balanced workload; job security and change; and job conditions. “If you get these [elements] right, stress is less likely to occur,” he says.
2. Train managers to recognise stress - theirs and their team's
Clearly, such an approach relies heavily on managers being able to create these optimum sets of conditions for their teams, and managers could be said to be at the heart of both the cause and solution of stress-related problems. If they are unable to manage their own workloads, it’s highly unlikely they can create a stress-free environment for their teams.
ILM’s research found that almost three fifths (57%) of managers believed their direct reports to be either stressed, or very stressed. Employers, therefore, must provide managers with support and training to manage their own stress and that of their teams. “Managers must be trained to be champions of wellbeing rather than proponents of stress,” says Shah, while Tinline reckons managers need to understand the impact of their behaviour and suggests that a combination of resilience training and an awareness of their own leadership style can help with this.
This training should also include spotting the signs of stress. The most visible outward indications of stress are high absenteeism and a fall-off in productivity, but managers should be alert to out-of-character behaviour such as irritability, anxiety and loss of confidence. “Although stress is not a physical condition it can have physiological effects, so complaints of headaches or trouble sleeping could also be a sign,” says Tinline. “The better a manager gets to know the member of the team, the greater the chances of them noticing sooner rather than later.”
3. Make wellbeing important
Fostering the right conditions and providing the necessary training and education can be backed by a raft of wellbeing measures. The link between physical activity and improved mental health is long established. And while not every company can afford to offer its employees gym membership, there are lower cost options that can prove effective, like a lunchtime walk. “A range of options is best so that people can choose whatever they feel most comfortable with,” says Tinline. “But creating a culture that allows people to take these breaks is more important than the resources themselves. There’s no point building a state-of-the-art gym if people feel they will be frowned upon for leaving their desk to use it.”
4. Publicise the options available
It is also vital to ensure employees know about the options open to them. According to Shah, research conducted by the Stress Management Society found that for every £75 spent on wellbeing support, only £1 is spent communicating it to the workforce.
While stress and wellbeing experts advocate a holistic and preventative approach to dealing with workplace stress, there is nothing wrong with introducing some pilot or individual stress-busting measures such as on-site massage to try to address the problem. “These will result in staff feeling more valued and engaged, and if you are able to show they have delivered benefits to your own workforce, it could be used to build the business case for a wider strategy,” explains Shah. He recommends, though, that any one-off wellbeing activity will bring more lasting benefit if it is accompanied by some attendant form of education for the workforce.
Given the pressures placed on organisations and their people today, it is rare to find a workplace that hasn’t been affected by stress in some way. Fortunately, it is no longer the taboo subject it once was, although there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems that needs to be broken down. Employers have a huge part to play in moving this discussion on. Stress is a modern day phenomenon that isn’t going to disappear overnight. We all have to learn to live with it and, more importantly, learn how to manage it.