Managing Stress in the Workplace
In recent times many Community Sector Organisations have faced unprecedented challenges and change as a fallout from the recession. Uncertainty over funding, the pressures of finding cost savings and the difficult task of managing a redundancy process have raised stress levels dramatically on boards of management, managers and employees alike.
Normally our bodies and minds cope with stress as part of every day life. The symptoms –adrenaline production, short-term resistance as a coping mechanism, tension and exhaustion are often short lived and cause no lasting harm. However, when people at work are exposed to excessive pressures or excessive demands which are relentless and long term they will suffer physical and psychological illness. If the early signs of developing problems are not spotted and acted upon the consequences can be significant and long term.
There is a good body of evidence to show that organisations with trained and competent managers have lower levels of work related stress than those where the managers have not received formal management training. Research into work related stress by the Health & Safety Authority has shown that there is considerable overlap between the management competencies required for preventing and reducing potential sources of stress at work and general management competencies.
In the key area of job demands, good management systems are in place when workers agree with management that they can cope with the demands of their jobs and that there is a recognised method of raising and responding to individual concerns. This would be demonstrated by a management that matches people’s skills and abilities to the job, and that jobs, while challenging, are within the worker’s capability and their objectives can be achieved within normal working hours. There should be a formal system in place through which a worker’s concerns about the working environment can be addressed.
In the key area of control of his/her job, employees should be able to agree that they have a say in the way they do their work and that personal concerns are taken into account. This can be achieved when employees control the pace of their work and have a say in deciding their work pattern. They will also be encouraged to use and develop their skills and given the chance to take on some challenging work.
Support is a necessary component of a stress management system. There should be policies and procedures in place to support the workforce. These will include systems to encourage managers to support their staff and colleagues to support each other. Everyone in the organisation will know what additional support is available and how to obtain it. Employees will also receive regular and constructive feedback designed to overcome problems or give encouragement rather than a one-sided criticism.
The likelihood of stress will be reduced where there are settled relationships between employees and none are subject to bullying or harassment by colleagues or managers. Organisations should have agreed systems to prevent and resolve unacceptable behaviours, which encourage the reporting of unacceptable behaviours and a system for dealing with them in a positive way.
Workers need to be clear as to their role and responsibilities. So the organisation must itself be clear about roles and responsibilities and ensure that it does not create conflicts. Good management will be demonstrated when these considerations are taken into account and when there is also a recognised system for raising and resolving conflicts in role and responsibility.
Change is a major cause of workplace stress especially where timescales are too short and where the approach is unplanned and haphazard. To reduce stress change needs to be planned and employees need to be involved in or consulted throughout the planning process. This can be difficult given that much of the change experienced in recent times has been driven by external developments such as funding cuts. Employees need to understand what is happening and how the change will affect them personally. They also need to be fully trained in new processes before they are introduced and be supported through the initial period of change.
There needs to be a transparent feedback process through which they can influence the development and improvement of any new systems. Perhaps the most important item is that they have a timetable of change so that they know what changes will affect them and when. Communication and Consultation are key elements in this process similar to the process of negotiating changes to contracts of employment.
At first sight this all looks complicated and many managers think it too daunting a challenge to even begin. That’s not only the wrong approach but is also an inaccurate assessment of the situation. Workplace stress may be seen as a health and safety issue but in reality its foundations are in management and human resource management practices and procedures. A listening and caring management approach, the approach we all aim for throughout the community sector, is the way forward.
The official guidance on reducing workplace stress says that the way forward is through communication, consultation and good leadership. We appreciate that many Boards of Management are facing significant new challenges in coping with funding cuts. It is however their responsibility as the employer to commit to management standards and be seen to abide by them especially when there is urgent work to be done in times of difficulty.
The advice is to look at stress matters in small chunks; it could be a subject, a department or a location. The approach needs to be planned and employers are advised to start small; work with a small group on a small topic and gradually expand as you become confident in your approach. Keep the workforce informed about what is happening at all stages of the process. Be honest with them, if there are problems or difficult issues emerging tell them. To do otherwise is not good management and that in itself causes stress.
A sensible approach to managing stress is to use the risk assessment approach.
- Step 1 is to understand “best practice” management standards.
- Step 2 is to identify who might be at risk; where and how. Obtain information or evidence to support your conclusion.
- Step 3 and possibly the most difficult is evaluating those risks and identifying from the information gathered where the problems lay.
- Step 4 you will record your findings before going on to develop and implement an action plan.
- Step 5 will subsequently monitor and review the effectiveness of your action plan and enable you to make adjustments to improve your systems.
It is important to tackle the issue of stress and to act now to stop it adversely affecting the performance of your organisation.