Articles

 
Alison Smith
Stress Iceberg
 
Today I defrosted the freezer.  I don’t want to think about how many years’ worth of ice dripped, and dropped away.  It had become totally normal to have most of the top shelf occupied by a trainee iceberg, leaving only a tiny space there to make ice cubes, and I had got used to not being able to open the next drawer down at all. An abundance of fruit and veg in the garden finally led me to get on with the job to have room for produce in the freezer.
 
When something builds up slowly like ice in a freezer, it’s easy to get used to the small scale irritation of minor inconveniences, so that the whole thing becomes invisible even while it grows.  Sometimes it takes a crisis or a compelling reason before we notice the polar bear on the shelf and, more important, do something about it.
 
In my experience, it can be like that with stress at work.  It’s unusual that an overload of stress suddenly appears overnight.  It often creeps in, for example through:  
·        incremental increases in hours or workload,
·        inefficient or out of date work practices that are just ‘the way we’ve always done the job’,
·        the culture within the organisation which is made up of many small actions by many people
·        repeated and long drawn out re-organisations, especially where redundancies are likely
 
These examples can be relatively easy to address once they have surfaced and have been acknowledged.  More challenging in my view are the stresses people experience from the leadership styles of those in management positions.  Nearly a third of employees said in a recent poll commissioned by Investors In People that they would swap their boss if they could.    
 
Read on for why stress matters to your organisation, what you can do about it.
 
Why should employers be interested in stress?
 
Pressure is part and parcel of all work and helps to keep us motivated. But excessive pressure can lead to stress, which not only affects the individuals concerned, it can make a big difference to performance and profitability.
 
Work related stress has been shown to have adverse effects on:
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employee commitment to work
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staff performance and productivity
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staff turnover and intention to leave
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attendance levels
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staff recruitment and retention
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customer satisfaction
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organisational image and reputation
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potential litigation
 
Work-related stress can also impact teams.  For example, losing one colleague for an extended period with a stress related illness can have a dramatic impact on the workload and morale of the rest of the team.  Stressed managers also often pass on their stress to their staff in a negative chain reaction. Even good managers who care about their staff can unconsciously become over-controlling in an attempt to deal with their stress.

As well as the sound business reasons for addressing stress at work, employers also have a legal responsibility to tackle work related stress.  The UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) expects organisations to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for stress and to take action to tackle any problems identified.
 
What can you do?
 
In the past, interventions to deal with work related stress were mainly on an individual basis, often in the form of stress management courses for individuals.  More recently a new approach is being endorsed by the HSE. Organisations are encouraged to measure themselves against Management Standards designed to reflect the conditions expected in an organisation with high levels of health, well being and organisational performance.
 
The HSE Management Standards approach brings the focus onto the organisation and causes of stress within it, rather than only concentrating on supporting individual stressed employees.  The HSE provides very clear guidance and toolkits to help organisations implement the Standards click here for more.  For in-house teams wanting help using the HSE toolkits, Alison offers support and focus group facilitation.
 
Successful people need to know how to handle stress well to stay successful.  Yet many people still don't want to admit they are experiencing stress for fear of being stigmatised.  Alison offers individual support in handling stress positively, for people in stressful situations who want to be more effective at work, improve their work/life balance, and reduce the impact of stress on themselves and those around them.  
 
If your HSE survey and focus groups have uncovered issues with the behaviour or management style of one or more people in leadership roles, addressing this within the organisation can be difficult and you may want to bring in outside support.  Alison works with leaders in groups and one-to-one to help them develop new ways to bring out the best in their staff.  The Empowering Manager group workshops on coaching management style are also ideal for organisations wanting to move their management culture towards greater empowerment of staff.

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