Hunt out stress at work

Workers at Huntsman Tioxide no longer let stress rule their lives thanks to
an innovative scheme. A stress survey enabled their counselling network to face
up to stress, talk about it and take practical steps to combat it to the
benefit of all employees, by Mike Eccles

Huntsman Tioxide, previously part of ICI, is one of the world’s largest
producers of titanium dioxide pigment, which is used primarily in the
production of paints and plastics. It employs more than 3,000 people worldwide,
spans more than seven countries and has a production capacity of 570,000 tonnes
a year.

At Tioxide’s central research and development site in Billingham, the
health, safety and working environment of employees has always been given high
priority. A small group of staff are qualified in counselling skills and
voluntarily assist colleagues on site by offering the opportunity to discuss
any issues or concerns in confidence. In 1997 these counsellors, called the
counselling network, approached the management team with concerns about people
who were feeling over-stressed for various reasons. Management agreed that
something needed to be done.

How the counsellors help

Several problems faced the counsellors: identifying the cause or causes of
stress, finding out who was affected and, of course, trying to help.

The counselling network also knew they should avoid spending a lot of money
researching a problem that might turn out to be affecting only a very few
people – who might be helped in a different way.

Bearing this in mind, the network approached the Lancaster Group, which
specialises in finding ways of alleviating stress in the workplace. After
consultation with them, the Huntsman counsellors championed the conduct of a
‘stress survey’ among all employees, to assess accurately the extent of the
problem.

The survey was designed to find out what types of stresses individuals are
under and to show which situations create stress and how staff deal with them.

How the changes were implemented

While the Lancaster Group prepared the survey, the counselling network began
educating Tioxide staff to ensure they felt confident with the process and
trusted the confidentiality of the results.

The management team stepped back from proceedings to avoid the outcome being
affected by their intervention.

The counsellors talked with each team individually, explaining exactly what
the survey was for, why it was being proposed and how it would work. The
investment in explaining how the survey worked paid off, with an 80 per cent
response rate – one of the highest the Lancaster Group had witnessed.

Confidentiality was maintained throughout the process. Completed
questionnaires were analysed by the Lancaster Group before mailing the feedback
to individual’s home addresses rather than to the company offices. Huntsman
Tioxide had access only to the Lancaster Group and team results which allowed
them to identify problem areas and plan changes while retaining the anonymity
of individual employees.

After receiving the feedback from the Lancaster Group there were many
implications for the company. If employees did have a problem with stress then
Tioxide had to be prepared to propose a solution.

Help came in various ways. The Lancaster Group provided everyone with a
booklet about reducing the impact of stress in their lives. Also, consultants
were available for anyone whose feedback had shown them to be highly stressed
and unable to deal with it.

It was strongly felt by the counsellors and the management team that there
should always be an avenue outside the company for anyone who felt they needed
to talk, so employees were encouraged to seek help from whoever they felt most
comfortable with.

Positive outcomes for the business

The most positive outcome from the survey has been a change of attitude.
Employees now talk about stress. It has developed from being something that was
suffered in silence to something that can be discussed and solved.

A number of practical measures have been introduced to help change the
working environment. One team has introduced aromatherapy and installed
equipment in the office, for example, to try to combat stress, while another
team has started a lunchtime fitness group, going to the gym to work out any
stress or frustrations.

It has also been acknowledged that, to a large extent, the feeling within a team
is dependent on how it is managed. The company has always encouraged managers
to obtain feedback from their teams and the survey highlighted how important
this is as a tool. As a result, more people have taken the opportunity to learn
more about their own style as a manager and how they can adapt in order to
improve the atmosphere within their team.

Stress is no longer something to be hidden away at Huntsman Tioxide. By
facing up to the problem, talking about it and making changes to combat it,
workers at Huntsman Tioxide no longer let stress rule their lives.

There have been several additional surveys at Billingham since 1997, to
check on progress and extend the depth of the analysis. Other Huntsman Tioxide
sites worldwide are following the initiative, with surveys either completed or
planned.

Proof of success is always a challenge, but the Billingham site did its part
last year in delivering the group’s best performance for a very long time.

Top tips

– Try to dissipate any concerns or threats people might feel at first, it is
very important to educate people about why the survey is needed. Carefully
planned open communication is essential

– It is very important to maintain the confidentiality promised. Should a
rumour begin as a result of the survey no-one would ever take part again

– It is important to see it as more than just a survey, the company has got
to be prepared to help following the feedback. If stress is an inherent part of
the job, try to educate staff about coping mechanisms

– Ensure you have an independent company doing the survey, this provides
great reassurance for everyone and experts will be available to talk through
any problems that may arise

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