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Talking away stress. By Annie Lawler

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In the second of a new series on stress in the workplace, Annie Lawler looks at how poor communication affects staff stress levels.


One of the key causes of stress in the workplace is poor communication; not only in terms of communication between management and employees, but also between colleagues. The culture of a company can help enormously in this, if there is an open approach, where everyone feels ‘heard’ and is also prepared to listen.

The HSE’s guidelines on stress management in the workplace, which are being used in tribunals as best practice, highlight, amongst other things, that positive working should be encouraged in order to avoid conflict and to deal with unacceptable behaviour and also include the following relating to communication:

  • Employees should be able to have a say in their working methods
  • Procedures should be in place for employees to report any unacceptable behaviour
  • Employees receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and managers
  • The organisation promotes positive behaviours at work to avoid bullying or conflict and ensure fairness
  • The organisation ensures adequate employee consultation on changes and provides opportunities for employees to influence proposals

The problem

Generally speaking, this sounds like common sense, but quite often companies unwittingly fall foul of these guidelines and often do not pay enough attention to communication within their organisations, which can cause all kinds of trouble. It makes sense, then, to devote a little extra time on what is said, how it is said, what communication styles are deemed ‘acceptable’ and what channels of communication are used to best effect.

HR Zone recently published an article regarding a CIPD funded research project on stress within organisations, where a comparison was made between poor communication in companies and in a ‘bad marriage’. Lack of communication, feeling taken for granted, little trust and feeling dissatisfied were all cited as reasons for employees feeling under stress and being likely to leave their jobs.

If you don’t know what’s wrong, I’m not going to tell you…

It’s also fair to say that, in my experience in working on stress management within organisations, there is a lot of attention given by employees to the ‘lack of communication’ from management, but they rarely consider their own role within this sometimes dysfunctional relationship. On more than one occasion, due to discussion about the effects of clear communication in my seminars, clients have been able to retain key members of staff because the member of staff has subsequently voiced concerns and issues about which the employer was previously unaware.

Employees sometimes have the perception that management has a crystal ball and is immediately able to be all-seeing and all-knowing. Going back to that ‘bad marriage’ again, it can appear a bit like the ‘if you don’t know why I’m not talking to you, I’m not going to tell you’ syndrome. What both sides need to recognise is that communication is a two-way street.

Improving communication channels

So how can companies ensure they have clear, two-way communication channels? Well, there are a few theories on the subject. For example, statistics quoted in Dr Albert Mehrabian’s spoken communications model have become some of the most widely quoted. You may recognise them:

  • Seven percent of meaning is in the words that are spoken
  • 38 percent of meaning is in the way in which the words are said or tone of voice used
  • 55 percent is in facial expression

So an awful lot of spoken communication is judged not so much by what is said, but the manner in which it is delivered. The same words can be voiced and yet meant in a completely different way. Add to that what happens when somebody misinterprets the intention of the words and you can start to understand why clear communication is so vital to the wellbeing and performance of an organisation.

Based on these statistics, telephone communication is more tricky than face to face communication because we lose 55 percent of the ‘clues’ as to the intention and no wonder e-mail communications can be the cause of so much stress in the workplace when we also lose the clues in the tone of voice!

Having said that, all these methods of communication have their place and the use of multi-media to convey important messages has been shown to increase the effectiveness of any communication. As the old adage goes, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’, so adding visual elements, movement, repetition and communicating by a variety of channels is likely to be most effective in conveying messages. You only have to look at advertising and marketing campaigns to see the effectiveness of multimedia usage. But few things replace the physical presence and interactive conversation and discussion.

Possible solutions

‘Clinics’ and regular reviews where open discussion between management and members of staff is invited are a great way to build effective communications and for all parties to put forward concerns and ideas.

Brainstorming is a great technique for generating new ideas and solving issues. In order to feel valued and to be motivated, most of us have to feel that we make a difference and brainstorming sessions can be a really effective method of encouraging open communication. Provided it is planned and facilitated well and that the conversation includes everyone and that open recognition is given to good ideas, brainstorming can be a great team builder and motivator.

Internal newsletters, both printed and via e-mail can be a very effective method of recognising efforts and achievements, can ‘advertise’ social events, job vacancies, and can act as a training vehicle and a reminder of key objectives.

Suggestion boxes can be a helpful way of inviting constructive ideas from those who may not be comfortable voicing their opinions in a public environment. Schemes which recognise the benefit of suggestions which are then put into practice can be extremely motivating and help employees feel they make a real contribution.

Social events where more informal communication can take place between members of staff can be extremely effective in team building and in promoting good morale.

Mentoring schemes where younger or less experienced members of staff can learn from those who have been through similar situations before and where they can get support, can help people improve their ability to do their job effectively and can help build rapport and make people feel valued.

Taking ownership

Follow up to meetings and brainstorming sessions is incredibly important in terms of communication. Once the meeting has ended, people need to see that action is being taken and, where possible and relevant, need to be part of the action. When people ‘take ownership’ they are more likely to feel motivated and to produce the desired results.

This leads me onto a vital piece of communication which is so often overlooked and yet so critical. This is also one of the elements covered in HSE’s guidelines on good working practice to relieve undue stress. And that is that people have to understand their role, what is expected of them and when.

So many managers fail to communicate this information and simply give employees a title and a desk, leaving them to flounder around and pick up what information they might need from whatever sources they choose to look.

Clear communication of roles and objectives relating to specific projects helps businesses achieve their aims more easily and gives clear guidance to members of the team of what they have to do and when. Getting ‘buy-in’ to these tasks and deadlines by verbal communication and following up with written job descriptions and clear instructions may take time initially, but is much more likely to result in a positive outcome.

Finally, one of the simplest and most effective methods of communication I found when I was managing a team, is to wander round the office at frequent intervals and speak to people. I know it may sound like an ‘unnecessary’ interruption to the list of things which are awaiting you at your desk, but you can find out a lot of information, understand some of the issues that are going on and help motivate people, just by being interested. We are, after all, human beings and everyone likes to feel they are important in some way. It’s amazing what massive effects small actions like this can have on your business.

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I am committed to supporting employers to improve staff retention and performance through consultation, seminars and one-to-one coaching and counselling. If you are interested in exploring ways to help your company work more happily and effectively through effective stress management, whilst also protecting yourself against potential litigation, please contact Annie Lawler (without obligation) on 0772 581 8884 or [email protected]

Read other articles in the series:
Stress management: the facts

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