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John Pope

Woolhampton Management Services


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Are you stressed at work?


Many articles on stress concentrate on what the stressed individual can do to relax, actively manage health, reduce the workload, re-arrange priorities and clear away small niggling jobs.

All of which is, I am sure, good advice and would give temporary relief, which might just be enough to get a stressed person back on track for a while. However, there was no emphasis on those who together could do most to reduce stress on the individual. For lasting stress-relief the underlying problems must be resolved.

The root causes of stress
The roots will be familiar to most people; being given a mix of impossible jobs, unrealistic objectives, insufficient resources, un-collaborative co-workers, constant changes of priority or plans, all against the background of having to success and capability to give continuing employment or promotion and all of this often under an uncaring manager.

Who could or should help?
Relieving stress usually depends on three or more people: the individual, the manager, the co-worker(s). The individual helps resolve the problems by admitting to being stressed, by pointing out and clarifying the problem, the cause and, if possible, suggesting solutions. It can start with well reasoned questions to the manager – which of the ‘top priorities’ do you want first? A statement of what is realistically possible, followed by a list of essential resources to do the task, can help the manager make a reasoned choice. And to the manager who gives a big list of jobs to be done, the reply ‘which ones are essential?’ can help reduce the load. In manufacturing a blunt remark ‘Tie a broom to my tail and I’ll sweep the floor at the same time’ can jolt the inefficient manager towards reality.

If the manager does not take the initiative to reorganise work so that the individual can get on with the job, free from interruptions, arbitrary changes of specification or direction, it is for the worker to take the initiative, and persist until the manager changes, or the individual can stand it no more and work for someone else.

The manager can of course reduce stress by being well organised, methodical, by prioritising work and understanding workload. But it is also the manager’s responsibility to know and understand the problems which the subordinate faces. It is not rocket science requiring psychological training. If a manager cannot spot when people are labouring, in difficulties, working fruitlessly or seem confused, that manager is unfit for the job.

The co-worker – working alongside the employee in difficulties can help by guiding, questioning, supporting, and by advising a colleague how to deal with some of the problems which cause stress.

And HR? HR cannot do their job if they do not understand the workforce, the problems it faces, and the pressures which some of them face. They should also know which managers need advice and guidance in managing their people. They may be on the sidelines but they have to be aware of the obstructions to productivity, the feelings of the workforce, as well as the absence and sickness records of individuals, teams, and the attitudes of individual managers. And if they were in good, regular contact with the workforce, at all levels, they would know the mood of the workforce and would not need to do engagement surveys.

And health…
How we organise our work ourselves is an important factor in stress. Those who are basically well organised personally and plan their working day to fit a pattern which works for them are less subject to stress, those who ‘do the work of the day in a day’ as Wellington put it, who do not put off the difficult decisions which loom, ever larger and worrying as they are delayed further and further, suffer less. All of us have to find a pattern of working which suits our personal approach, there are, after all, ‘early birds’ and those who are ‘night owls’.

And you – are you stressed at work?
Some stress is inevitable – despite what should be done, there will be times when work gets on top, sometimes when there are conflicting demands from family, employer. Asking for help, guidance is a strength not a weakness. Better admit to problems, backlogs, before they become so big and daunting that they are discovered by someone else at bedside in hospital.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of businesses, managers and management teams for most of his career. To know more about John’s work and services please visit the website: His book ‘Winning Consultancy Business’ was published in 2009 and is available through his website. He can be contacted at [email protected].

One Response

  1. Preventing stress at work

    Most articles that refer to preventing stress at work really refer to managing symptoms that already have arisen, and this article is about this – preventing deterioration. The root cause of pressure – tension- strain – stress is people, and in controlled communities, such as formal organisations of all types, the controllers are managers. As with everyone who works within formal organisations, managers behaviour is heavily influenced by the cultural context of the organisation. The most successful organisations, and those with the lowest levels of psychological presenteeism, sickness absence and staff turnover, are those with a Positive Work Culture that actively promotes wellbeing and performance through behaviours and processes that are designed to achieve commitment, trust and social engagement. Other forms of engagement are also persued vigorously – the loyalty and economic engagement factors. Focusing on A Positive Work Culture, The Wellbeing and Performance Agenda, The Manager’s Code and Stregthening Resilience are all primary prevention activities designed to prevent psychological presenteeism, therefore designed to reduce the risk of tension, strain  and stress occurring at all.

    The time has come to shift away from dealing with symptoms of existing tension, strain and stress to stopping these features from occurring in the first place. The benefit dividend is massive. Psychological presenteeism costs an estimated two times the cost of sickness absence and staff turnover combined. Once adressed the added cost divident is an engaged workforce that is energised, attentive, innovative and constructive.

    Dealing with symptoms may not be too late, although the approaches will only have intermediate effect or no effect. It is, however, one step behind where managers should be focusing their attention – acquiring the attributes and developing the behavioural skills that promote wellbeing and performance through building and sustaining commitment and trust.

    The workforce will play its part if managers encourage the principles of adaptive leadership and management. In the meantime, the workforce needs to strengthen its resilience in times of change – this is the building of personal capacity to experience excessive stresses and demands without experiencing personal stress.

    Derek Mowbray




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