Workplace stress is the industrial disease of our generation, what can managers do about it?
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Workplace stress is the industrial disease of our generation, what can managers do about it?

The industrial diseases of our time are stress-related. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that 35% of all work-related ill health cases and 41% of all days lost to illness are linked to stress. An estimated 26% of all primary care attendees seek help for anxiety or depression. This statistic is even more shocking when you consider that only one in three people will seek help for a mental health issue.

A certain amount of challenge at work can be very motivating, and the right amount of workplace stress can improve our productivity. However, if you increase stress past a certain point you get the opposite effect: productivity rapidly declines and we become vulnerable to various health conditions.

The HSE has a rather vague definition of stress: ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures and demands placed on them.’ While this definition does seem to describe stress intuitively, it is so broad that a conscientious HR manager would not be able to test for it very reliably. Stress can be best understood in terms of two things: stressors and people’s personal characteristics.

Stressors at work and at home

These are the things in the work environment that actually cause stress. The most common examples include work pressure, lack of support, harassment (including sexual harassment) and bullying. There are other stressors that might also be present that – while not strictly work-related – can be compounded by what is going on at work. These include caring for a family member, financial concerns, a long commute, a chronic health condition or relationship difficulties. Some stressors can have a time-limited effect, such as losing a loved one. Others, such as going through a divorce, can have an on-going effect.

Individual characteristics

Stressors affect different people differently. Some of us can cope with some stressors better than with others, so it’s important to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses and to think of ways to strengthen ourselves against specific stressors.

Mental health professionals have observed that some people are able to cope with adverse situations and come through relatively unscathed. Yet other people can be severely affected by relatively minor stressors. Furthermore, some people show great ability to cope with one type of stressor (say, on-going bullying) whilst being severely affected by another (having financial concerns, for example). People’s ability to cope also changes with time and circumstances. And we know that experiencing more than one stressor at a time will increase the chances of having a bad reaction to stress. From these observations comes the idea of resilience, which is the ability to manage stressors effectively.

So, taking stressors and the individual characteristics of your team into account, how can you ensure your employees don’t succumb to the modern disease?

Four ways to help your team manage workplace stress

  1. Look for stressors that can be changed
    Meet regularly with the people in your team and try to understand what the pressures are. If you can modify these workplace stressors, do so. If you cannot, explain to your team why those pressures are there, what their purpose is and what the company is trying to achieve. If you do that you may find that just having the information will reduce stress, even if you cannot do anything about the situation. Think about how much better it is to be told why there is a traffic jam and how long the delay will be, rather than to sit in the car without a clue. Be as transparent as you can be, and you can probably be more transparent than you think you can be. Also, make sure that employees are aware of how to whistle blow if they believe things are unsafe.
  2. Give back a sense of control
    Someone trying to do too much at once will do nothing well, so it’s important that employees in your team have the ability to signal when they are at capacity. As a manager, your role is to offer the opportunity for this sort of discussion where workload is measured and prioritised. Empower them to quantify how long each task should take and to allocate tasks to available time, giving individuals as much autonomy over their time as possible. Giving your team members a feeling of control over their situation will go a long way to reducing their stress.
  3. Be aware of the effect stress is having
    Are your team members being stimulated by the challenges they face or are they crumbling under the pressure? Watching out for the signs of stress can be a powerful way to tell you when it’s time to step in and help them. So be aware of things like employees using alcohol excessively, smoking excessively, overeating, complaining of sleeping poorly, acting restless or irritable, looking tired or losing interest in the things they enjoy. These can all be early signs of trouble. If you notice these or other signs that make you think something is different, encourage them to seek help, don’t leave it for later. Your company will have a policy on how to support your team members at times like this, be sure you are familiar with it.
  4. Help them build resilience
    Sometimes it’s not possible to change the environment, but as we saw earlier, some people are able to cope with quite difficult situations and not experience the negative effects of stress. How do they do it? The key is resilience. Think of this like preparing for a marathon. If you have never trained you will be ill early on in the race; if you have planned and trained for it carefully, you will be able to cope with the demands of the race. A lot of the same principles apply to stress. Find time to have health-focused discussions with employees and create some team initiatives around eating healthily; taking regular exercise; reducing smoking and drinking; and getting enough sleep. You could also explore some of the following during team meetings to help build team-wide resilience:

    • Learning to meditate and having some time allocated to it every day. Ten minutes as a team exercise would be enough.
    • Learning and practising calm breathing. This basic exercise can relax you and your team before that big meeting, but more importantly, if you get your team to practice it regularly it will help them be more able to cope with stress.
    • Progressive deep muscle relaxation is a very effective technique that works within a few minutes, and also improves your team’s resilience if they practice it regularly. Again, this can be done in seven minutes or so before or after a team meeting.