Management consultant John Pope examines the ongoing issue of stress at work, and asks whether most of us will inevitably feel stressed at some point in our working lives, and what we can do to prevent this.
Stress in the news
I see regular articles in HRZone.co.uk and in the media on the subject of stress at work. The government has a website in which it orders employers to do all they can to prevent stress. There are results of surveys, some with exaggerated claims, showing how stressed we are all becoming. It seems to be a newly fashionable and useful disease in some organisations, not easily diagnosed and replacing ‘bad back’ as a reason for frequent or prolonged absence. If those articles are to be believed, half the working population is under stress and the other half are about to get it or are recovering from it.
Is stress at work inevitable?
I knew a volunteer organiser very well. She was responsible for developing and running a wide range of schemes over two counties, which contained two and a half cities and four big towns. She had hundreds of volunteers and she spent about a third of her time on her job which she did extremely well. There were of course worries and some heavy responsibilities which she took very seriously. When asked whether she did not find the work stressful her reply was: “Stress? I don’t get it – I give it.”
In fact she did not really give much stress. She was careful to establish what people could do, to set out clear guides on what was required and how it should be done. Of course, there were times when individuals turned to her and said that they could not undertake all that was required and she made arrangements to reorganise the work accordingly. She was in close contact with all her own organisers and in touch with many of the volunteers. She had very occasionally a case where an individual had got into a mess but she resolved it quickly with no permanent damage to the individual. I still don’t know how she managed it.
Managers can be experts in stressing people. They can put someone in a job which they are not suited to; fail to provide the training or tools needed; ignore their concerns; fail to prioritise work; apply pressure when there are delays, regardless of whether the objectives were realistic. These approaches are all too common and few employees can stand up to it and get stressed or ill as a result. I am surprised there aren’t more assassinations in business. Stress at work is not inevitable, but it is a common result of inattentive or uncaring management.
Who gets it? Who doesn’t?
It seems to me that the people who get stressed are those who are conscientious and take their work seriously; they are people who are concerned about failure because of the effects it will have on their position. They tend to find it difficult to prioritise their work and are not good at multi-tasking; they can be perfectionists; they also tend to be people who cannot say ‘no’ to extra work when they are already heavily loaded. They can find it difficult to discuss their inability or workload with their own manager, unless the manager is understanding and sympathetic.
Who doesn’t get stress? People who don’t care and are prepared to let responsibilities fall on other people’s shoulders; people who are not really committed to their work.
But anyone, however strong, can be broken by being over-loaded, subject to constant worry, burdened by responsibilities which they cannot off-load, and by seeing no way out of the position except for resigning or by withdrawing into ill health which then becomes progressively worse.
How do you spot it? Who should spot it?
There is a story of a civil servant who started to have irregular absences which became more frequent and longer. Eventually a senior colleague went round to call and found her working away at home surrounded by piles of files and documents. There was no praise for the employee. There was severe criticism of her manager for allowing such a thing to happen. The censure was not just for the breach of discipline in files being removed from the workplace but for ignoring the warning signs and allowing such a situation to develop. The lesson was clear: it is the manager’s responsibility to know what is happening and when an individual is showing signs of stress.
How can you prevent it?
It cannot be prevented completely, but it should be possible to stop it developing to a stage where it is causing damage to the individual’s health or to their work. Where managers are genuinely concerned about their people as well as the work which is done and when those managers are approachable, friendly and actively search for problems, it certainly reduces the incidence of stress. I knew well the retired finance director of what is now a multi-national company. He had started work as a clerk in the accounts office of the firm when it was still small, he had been exempt from the War – he had had polio and was very modest and unassuming. When he was appointed to his first job as a senior clerk he went round the office towards the end of Saturday mornings and said to each of his staff ‘show me all the problems’. His staff obliged and he spent the remainder of the morning resolving those problems. He told me that he had never had an unexpected problem in his working life. He had never had a case of a file with an unexploded problem being dropped down the back of a filing cabinet ‘accidentally’.
What can you do about the individual who is already seriously stressed?
Well, you could get rid of the individual and land the problems on someone else. But you have probably made quite an investment in that individual already. From an ethical point of view you have a duty to rehabilitate; and from a practical point of view you may not want to lose the individual and have the consequent disruption. You could:
- Send the individual on sick leave. That does not usually resolve it. Being sent home does not usually remove the worries which that individual has about the future, and the return to work after a period of absence can bring back the stress quickly unless the work has been reorganized.
- Lighten the load, but selectively. Success on a limited range of tasks within their capability can help the individual tackle more demanding work.
- Resolve conflicting priorities. Almost anyone can be driven to distraction by constant changes. Not only do these waste time in picking up and putting down a complex job, but the change of aim is de-motivating, especially when it also means abandoning work which was satisfactory but is no longer required.
- Adjust the work to suit the capabilities of the individual.
- Supervise more closely, but not too closely. Be there, know what’s happening; learn more about the individual and the issues which have not been resolved as the basis as getting deeper understanding of the capability be careful of over-supervision.
It is usually necessary to combine these approaches. However, the right combination depends how well the manager understands the reasons and takes a positive, forward view. That means spending much more time with the individual.
I am not hard-hearted
Lest you think that I am being hard-hearted about stress on individuals I must admit that I have caught this ‘disease’ during my consulting career, once at an early stage when I did not really understand what I was doing. I was too proud to ask my supervisor, who visited every couple of weeks, for help and started to report that tasks were almost finished when they had only just been started. It was allowed to run on for too long. Luckily I was reinforced before it was too late.
Action for managers
The action for managers is to be there, to be available, to be approachable, to understand what they unwittingly do to people, to discuss progress and issues early; to clarify aims, objectives, priorities, and to watch carefully for signs of individuals becoming over-loaded.
Action for HR and training
There will be some managers who do not pay enough attention to their people and the stress that they are under. Those managers need educating on their responsibilities and the damage that they can unwittingly do. But to do that HR need to be in contact with the managers and with the workforce. They need to see the warning signs, the incidence of absences, the staff who leave. They also need to know which managers do not appreciate the way they inflict unnecessary stress. They need to be in touch. HR certainly know the requirement, set by the government, on organisations to look after the wellbeing of the workforce.
And managers at all levels need to know how to identify people who are becoming stressed, know the organisation’s policy on stress and how to deal with it when it happens – better add a bit to the management training programme.
A disclaimer: I am not an industrial psychologist, only a long-in-the-tooth manager, and my views on stress are managerial, not medical or psychological.
John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He has worked in a wide range of businesses where performance and service were the keys to success. He continues to advise businesses at senior level on their direction, strategy and especially on the management of change. John can be contacted at [email protected]