Saturday, 3 October 2009

Reducing Stress At Work

A few days ago the press sadly ran the story of the 24th suicide, in 18 months, of a France Telecom worker; this being a 51 year old father of 2 who leapt to his death from a motorway overpass after leaving a note blaming “the atmosphere at work". In accordance with France Telecom's 3 year on-the-move programme, he had been moved to a different region and to work in a Call Centre renowned for high stress. Another possible contributing factor was that France Telecom had laid off 22,000 staff from 2006 - 2008 with many employees left feeling threatened. In being moved every 3 years, crucially there is less support available from colleagues or friends - regular moving simply alienates people, particularly during vulnerable times. The number of suicides at France Telecom, and in such a short space of time, is truly frightening and a serious indicator of how stress is able to distort someone's sense of self-worth and ability to reason rationally. To note, France Telecom suspended their 3-year move programme on the 29th September of this year.

Our own workplaces in the UK are prone to stress, hopefully protected more than France Telecom's however, thanks to the UK Government's HSE Stress Management Standard and tools to help employers and employees work together to prevent excessive work-related stress (launched on 3rd November 2004).

The HSE defines stress as, 'An adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them' and says "Given an excess of pressure, stress can therefore happen to anyone, and should not be seen as a weakness. Instead, an individual needs to be helped to deal with these pressures." (Making the Stress Management Standards work: How to apply the Standards in your workplace, HSE). So what should employers do and how readily has there been uptake?

It entails an employer assessing roles for potential of stress - for example there is higher stress when working in a call centre versus working in a more autonomous role. It also requires employers assessing employees for vulnerability to stress. The HSE has developed an assessment tool which employers can use to assess the workplace for potential to stress. It is a 6-factor assessment, covering the primary stressors in the workplace, likely to adversely affect most people, as follows:

1. Demands - this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.

2. Control - how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

3. Support - this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

4. Relationships - this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

5. Role - whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.

6. Change - how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

This is now accompanied by updated recommendations for management competencies to be assessed and improved in order to better manage the people who work for them, even if the environment is highly stressful. This requires employers and particularly HR professionals building a system for not only developing the skills amongst line managers; but also demonstrating that these skills have been evaluated and corrective actions taken or improvements made accordingly. Also, employers or HR departments must adequately possess these skills to begin with, before they can then pass them on or assess them in others. (This becomes even more challenging where the organisation has outsourced their HR function.)

The skills required of managers for managing stress are considered to be the skills that makes any manager competent (i.e. they are one and the same). These are skills that I have promoted and trained many in and I have to say, I am a more than a little pleased that this is being validated as invaluable for better management of stress, particularly at a time like now, where it is estimated that 1 in 6 employees on long-term absenteeism are suffering from chronic stress. Here is a summary of the competencies being outlined by the HSE, devised in collaboration with organisational psychologists for managers to show competence in:

1. Respectful and responsible: managing emotions and having integrity; having a considerate approach - must not be unpredictable in mood; pass on stress to employees; panic about deadlines; create unrealistic deadlines; give more negative than positive feedback; nor take suggestions about improvements as a personal attack.

2. Managing and communicating existing and future work - deals rationally with problems; deals with problems as soon as they arise; has a participative and delegating style - must not give too little direction to employees; be indecisive in making decisions.

3. Reasoning/managing difficult situations - acts as mediator in conflict situations; deals with squabbles before they become arguments - must not try to keep the peace rather than resolve issues; must not avoid addressing bullying.

4. Managing the individual within the team - speaks personally rather than uses email; is empathetic and sociable - must not simply assume rather than checking that employees are okay.

Empathy is fairly problematic for a stressed out manager however. Consider the definitions provided by the HSE:
  • encourages employee input in discussions
  • listens when employees ask for help
  • makes an effort to find out what motivates employees at work
  • tries to see team member’s point of view
  • takes an interest in team’s life outside work
  • regularly asks ‘how are you?’
  • treats all team members with equal importance
My colleagues and I are trained to assess the individual as well as the organisation, to provide an assessment in line with the HSE Management Standard, as well as providing the training and coaching some managers require in areas such as mediation skills and the soft skills such as listening, empathy and emotional self-control and stress reduction. Additionally, a wealth of information can be found at

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