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Stress audit

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HR Zone member Paul Flavin shares his opinions about some of the causes of stress within an organisation and the HR practices which can help to resolve them.


Stress is a difficult topic. It is widely recognised that there is a definite need for positive stress as the catalyst, enabling people to perform to the best of their abilities. However, it is a fine line between this and negative stress, which is both detrimental and costly to a business.

There is no single cause or solution to stress. Upon examining the subject it becomes clear that stress cuts across a range of organisational and HR issues. The challenge for HR is therefore to ensure that an equivalent range of policies and procedures is in place to identify and deal with staff suffering from stress.

Below is a breakdown of some of the major causes of stress within an organisation and, alongside these, the relevant HR areas, which can help to resolve them.

Over work
– Performance management/performance appraisal
– Staffing levels
– Job design/use of technology/T&D

Performance targets too high
– Performance appraisal – clearly defined targets
– T&D supporting target achievement

Acquisition/redundancy/change
– Communication/change management

Harassment/bullying
– Counselling service
– Grievance process
– Coaching/mgmt dev for managers
– Examine promotion process

Personal life
– Counselling service
– Private medical cover
– Occupational health service

Malingering – stress has been described as “the new bad back”
– Absence management
– Occupational health services

To further complicate the situation, other areas of HR also have a crucial bearing on levels of stress within an organisation:

Recruitment – focusing on the hire of staff with the necessary skills and personal characteristics to carry out the job.

Compensation and benefits – developing a culture which rewards and values staff for the work they do and, wherever possible, ensuring that staff have access to benefits, which allow them to balance work and home life. For example:

– Flexible working is one area, which arises from the need for work/life balance and illustrates positive intervention by HR. During busy periods the majority of staff are willing to work long hours but stress is caused by the continuation of this situation.

– Does HR ensure that staff are using their holiday allowance? It is often noted if staff exceed their allowance, but is there a minimum number of days which employees are required to take each year?

Poor line management also contributes to the majority of causes of stress outlined above. HR needs to firstly recognise that line managers ultimately deliver the majority of HR policies and, secondly, ensure that managers have the skills and ability to deal with stress-related situations when they arise. Day to day, this would take the form of training, coaching or mentoring. In extreme examples, the option of managing poor line managers out of the business would also have to be considered.

Finally, stress management is also linked to overall business performance. If people within a business are consistently not performing, the business itself will not hit targets. Effective HR policies on measurable issues, such as stress and absenteeism, can enhance the profile of HR within a business, and allow HR to add actual value.

The complex and wide ranging cost to the business, which stress inevitably creates, should be used by HR as a catalyst for engaging line or senior management in implementing robust, proactive HR policies and procedures.

Stress, and its related symptoms, is a key issue affecting businesses’ productivity and effectiveness. It may also, therefore, offer a genuine opportunity for HR to be at the front line of business strategy.

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