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Jo Ouston

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A business must manage stress or stress will manage the business


The current economic climate can mean an increasing number of employees feel unable to cope with tasks, find it difficult to manage others or feel frustrated about redundancies or reduced working days. Jo Ouston explains how to manage emotions in the workplace.

A few years ago, a card on offer in the gift shops bore the message: "I don’t suffer from stress. I’m just a carrier." It may have been funny at the time, when the biggest stress we had to handle was worrying about the size of our bonus, but in this recession it’s a very dark joke. And like most jokes, it bears a great deal of truth.
Stress is a virus. If left uncontrolled, stress in a workforce can very quickly destroy a business. And, unconsciously acting as carriers, business leaders can be the major source of infection. So understanding the special role and responsibility of leaders in this situation is the key to dealing with the problem. When signals of insecurity or loss of faith come from the top, the disease spreads wide and deep.
To stay with the medical analogy for just a little longer, there is no ‘anti-viral drug’ for stress, no one-shot cure that can be delivered from the top by inspirational messages or grand gestures. But preventative treatment is entirely possible. Careful management of stress is highly effective. It can be seen in three stages: first, understanding the nature and symptoms of stress; second, avoiding its causes; and third, providing strength to the body so that it is in a vigorous state to benefit from the upturn when it comes.
The medical definition of stress is: "Suffering that which is outside your control". The impact of an economic recession is a classic case. All the news is bad, and for most people, particularly employees, it all seems to be about things they can’t control. Everything is in the hands of dark and distant forces.

Negative effect

The symptoms are obvious. A pervading sense of insecurity leads to ‘fight / flight’ responses in which two sorts of behaviour typically occur. People either withdraw and insulate themselves, retreating into passivity and defeatism, or they become short-tempered and aggressive. Many resort to power games, becoming manipulative and political. The general effect is a sharp negative change in the work style of the organisation. Co-operation is replaced by self-interest, creativity by extreme conservatism, and courage by timidity.
The key to dealing with this downward change lies in identifying its practical causes. Only then can practical solutions be applied.
One set of causes can be classified as ‘communicative’, that is, the messages people receive. They see a narrowing horizon, shrinking opportunities, approaching disappointment. Salaries may be cut, bonuses eliminated. Friends and colleagues disappear. Bad news is pervasive, coming from the boardroom, the media, and political leaders. Office gossip becomes a competition for gloom.
Then there are the physical triggers – the unmanned desks and quiet offices, empty areas of the building, silent phones, strange meetings ending in tight-lipped, scurrying managers. The work environment bears the face of defeat.
Where lies the solution? In leadership, leadership, leadership. First, through a systemic decision, to remove the main cause of stress by returning to employees their sense of having some control of events. So, the ‘communicative’ causes can immediately be tackled. Information from directors and senior managers should be consciously clear, regular and honest. No retreat to silence. No evasion by spin.

Creating engagement

But telling is not enough. Asking is at least as important. What ideas are out there? Engage staff in plans for survival and recovery. Create ‘post-recession’ projects to regenerate creativity, with teams that cross specialisms and management levels, to pull people back from isolation and create engagement. Bad news is best handled not by denial, but by positive activity and creative application.
Deal with practical causes of stress by encouraging identifiable, practical steps. Consolidate office space. Redesign work areas – no empty desks, no unattended phones. Set specific challenges – conserving cash, managing credit, strengthening customer relationships (they may not be buying now, but we want them after the recession). Celebrate all successes, especially those where people have pulled together. Talent is not afraid to get up and leave so keep it engaged. Motivate staff with collaborative recovery projects.
Whatever the device, the overriding purpose is the same – to remove the sense of events being outside the individual’s control. So the search is for anything that increases areas of personal control, choice and discretion. These small, discrete steps are the essential groundwork for building a wider vision of what the future offers. Together they should form a sense of shared endeavour whose prize is the replacement of stress by a renewal of excitement.
Financial downturns come in cycles. Recovery will arrive. So for the organisation’s sake as well as for the sound health of their staff, everyone should concentrate on this. Retaining good staff is the key to recovery and to winning thereafter. To be part of a team that can beat the bad times and grow in the good times – that is the vision employees and employers should share.
Jo Ouston is founder of Jo Ouston & Co, a career and management development consultancy

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