Are you feeling stressed?

Cary
Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster
University Management School, tells us how to diagnose workplace stress, and
the practical steps individuals can take to beat it

It’s
that time of year again.  School’s back,
the summer holidays are rapidly becoming a dim and distant memory, and all you
can see stretching ahead are the long winter months.  At work, new projects will be starting for many employees, while
for others, the close of the third quarter will bring major deadlines.  

Are
you feeling overloaded and daunted by the amount of change that is occurring,
or perhaps a workplace relationship is still a source of irritation? Are you
beginning to feel stressed?

But
is it really stress, or just some healthy pressure that is motivating you to
get out of bed each morning? The term ‘stress’ is casually tossed about these
days to describe a wide range of ‘aches and pains’ resulting from our hectic
pace of work and domestic life.  “I really
feel stressed” someone says to describe a vague yet often acute sense of
disquiet.  “She’s under a lot of stress”
we say when trying to understand a colleague’s irritability or
forgetfulness.  “It’s a high-stress
job,” someone says awarding an odd sort of prestige to their occupation.  

But
to those whose ability to cope with day-to-day matters is at crisis point, the
concept of stress is no longer a casual one; for them, stress can be translated
into a four-letter word – pain.

Why
should we take stress seriously?

Stress
can damage health, cost millions and affect performance for individuals and
organisations, and it is becoming more prevalent.  On the other hand, for some, stress is still little more than
media hype.  So, here are some of the
facts.  

A
recent survey of employers in the UK indicated that absenteeism costs UK
businesses around £10.5bn, and that stress was the second-highest cause of
absence among non-manual staff (CBI/PPP, 2000).

More
recently, stress was identified as the largest cause of sickness absence for
non-manual workers (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, June
2003).  The Health and Safety Executive
(HSE) meanwhile has estimated that 13.4 million working days were lost in
Britain in 2001-2002 due to stress, depression or anxiety caused by
work-related stress (HSE, 2002).  

Whether
stress is ranked first or second, what is clear from these surveys is that it
can have severe consequences for both individuals and organisations.  

How
do I know if my organisation is suffering from stress?

As
an individual, you are most likely to be able to identify that many of your
colleagues are displaying behaviours that are known to be associated with
stress and pressure.  Look at the people
around you, are they irritable, short-tempered and lacking a sense of humour
where previously they have been easy going and happy individuals?

The
HSE is now also able to tell organisations if they are making their workers
face undue stress-inducing risks.  In
August this year, and for the first time, the HSE issued an NHS trust with an
‘improvement notice’ because they were failing to protect their staff from
stress.  They were alerted to this by an
individual complaint about the levels of stress in the organisation.  This signals to UK industry that the HSE is
now ready and able to spot stress risks at an organisational level, and can
assess what organisations are doing to prevent these.

So
what symptoms of stress should managers be looking for?  As well as employees demonstrating
stress-related behaviours, managers can recognise some of the following
symptoms too.  These include a
combination of declining performance, decreased job satisfaction, increasing
sickness absence rates and a rising number of accidents or heightened levels of
employee relations problems. These should act as a prompt to initiate stress
prevention work.

How
do I know if I am stressed?  

Stress
is very personal and can be differentiated from pressure, which generally
speaking, is good for us. We feel stressed when we experience more pressure
than we can cope with, so stress should not be confused with pressure.  

Pressure
can stimulate and encourage us to perform to the best of our abilities.
However, when it exceeds our abilities to cope, then you’ve moved into the
stress zone.

As
stress begins to take its toll on the body and mind, a variety of symptoms can
result.  Researchers have identified a
range of behavioural and physical symptoms of stress that commonly occur before
the onset of more serious stress-related illnesses.  The box below describes these behavioural and physical symptoms
of stress.

Behavioural
and physical symptoms of stress

Behavioural
symptoms

Constant
irritability with people

Difficulty
in making decisions

Loss
of sense of humour

Suppressed
anger

Difficulty
concentrating

Inability
to finish one task before rushing into another

Feeling
one is the target of others’ animosity

Feeling
unable to cope

Wanting
to cry at the smallest problem

Lack
of interest in doing things after returning from work

Waking
up in the mornings and feeling tired after an early night

Constant
tiredness

Physical
symptoms

Lack
of appetite

Frequent
indigestion or heartburn

Constipation
or diarrhoea

Insomnia

Tendency
to sweat for no good reason

Nervous
twitches, nail biting etc

Headaches

Cramps
and muscle spasms

Nausea

Breathlessness
without exertion

Fainting
spells

Impotence
or frigidity

Eczema

So,
why am I so stressed?

Unfortunately,
many people are the victims of imposed stress as organisations fight to
survive.  In the early 1990s, many companies
slashed costs and downsized to achieve higher performance/productivity or best
value.  This, of course, left fewer
people with far more work.  The current
economic conditions mean that once again, pressure is on workers to produce
more for their organisation.  

Such
a climate has helped to promote a culture of ‘presenteeism’, making employees
feel that being at work from very early to very late shows more loyalty and
commitment to the organisation, despite the fact that they might not be effective
– all in the vain hope they will be the last to be given the chop in the next
wave of redundancies.  

For
individuals, there are a number of sources of pressure in the workplace and at
home which combine to make us feel stressed. 
Many of the more recognisable work-related sources of stress include
work overload, feeling isolated or unsupported at work, and difficult
relationships with peers and managers – including workplace bullying.  

Also,
employees frequently feel stressed as a consequence of being unable to exercise
any control over aspects of their job, having to carry out conflicting roles or
simply from trying to balance the demands of work and home.

What
can I do about it?

It
is really important to remember that when dealing with workplace stress, you
can do something about it.  The first
step is to be aware of what it is and what causes it.  It then becomes useful to keep in mind the idea that pressure
only becomes stress when it exceeds your coping threshold.  Therefore, the key to managing stress is to
either do something about the source of pressure, or increase your ability to
cope – or both.

As
an individual, it is sometimes difficult to believe that you can do anything
about the stressors you face at work. 
However, you can frequently either change your behaviour or someone
elses, or alter the way you think about stressors to make them seem less
problematic.

For
example, if you find that you cannot cope with the deadlines set on a project,
approach your manager or external client to renegotiate the timescale, or ask
for extra resources to enable you to meet the deadline.  In tandem, try re-examining how you think
about the deadline, and how you are going to organise your work to achieve it.  This may make you think of it as a new challenge
that is achievable through working ‘smarter’.  

What
if my manager is a source of pressure?

This
can be a difficult issue for many employees. It can also be problematic for organisations
to deal with situations where the managers who are delegated the responsibility
for stress prevention and risk assessment, are actually the very source of the
pressure.  

For
organisations that are aware of this, one solution is to have a third party,
such as HR, occupational health or health and safety to conduct any stress risk
assessment activity.  Alternatively,
external consultants could be engaged to conduct such assessments, as they
provide not only independence and therefore credence, but also safety for
employees as their views will remain anonymous and confidential.  This latter route also frequently serves to
provide a powerful reality check for an organisation’s management team.

But
as an individual, what help is on hand if your manager is a source of
stress?  The first course of action is
to try to deal with the root problem – your manager may simply be unaware of
the implications of their actions.  The starting
point must always be to make your manager aware of the problems they are
creating.  However, if this is not
possible, then look to external sources of support.  HR, trade unions, staff associations, employee assistance
programmes and other external networks can provide support if your manager is
proving to be a source of stress.

Becoming
more resilient

If
tackling the problem at its source is not within your control – or indeed wise
– you might be advised to develop more personal resilience. The concept of
personal resilience is not about employers being uncaring, but about individuals
protecting themselves and learning to cope better with the levels of daily
pressure they face, and will continue to face.  

Both
nutrition and exercise can play a very important part in becoming more
resilient.  For example, the next time
you feel under pressure at work, consider increasing your resilience by
resisting the temptation to ‘work your lunch’ and instead go out for a quick
30-minute walk. Eating ‘lighter’ food can also contribute to feeling better
able to cope, particularly during the ‘post-lunch dip’.

Opportunities
for enhancing personal resilience can also of course be work-related.  In part, it involves doing whatever it takes
to make you more able to cope with the demands of your job.  This may include developing skills in time
management, such as meeting etiquette, diary management and controlling the
time spent responding to e-mail.

Relaxation
and breathing exercises can also be effectively employed in the workplace and
at home. Self-managed multi-media learning resources, such as ‘Under Pressure’,
produced by RCL & Skill Boosters, are full of awareness-raising information
and effective skills that can be learned and incorporated into people’s daily
lives to make a real difference to their ability to cope.

How
can my organisation help me?

The
prevention of all workplace stress is an unreasonable ideal. This should not be
taken as an excuse to do nothing, however, as there is much that employers can
do to help their staff cope with the new pressures of the 21st century
workplace.

The
attraction for employers is the idea that improving the quality of working life
for their staff will lead to improved personal and organisational performance –
which, ironically, has been their goal all along. As HSE chairman Bill
Callaghan recently wrote, the “HSE’s experience is that many businesses find
improving workplace standards provides quantifiable financial benefits”.

So
how should organisations work with employees to help deal with workplace stress?

For
the prevention and management of stress at work, there is a three-pronged
approach that organisations can implement that should provide a comprehensive
strategic framework: primary prevention (eg. tackling the root of the problem),
secondary prevention (eg. supporting staff and helping them become more
resilient) and tertiary prevention (eg. using an employee assistance programme
to counsel and rehabilitate workers).

How
can my organisation identify the sources of stress?

For
many organisations, the first step in tackling the source of stress has been to
initiate a quality of working life audit or diagnostic exercise to understand
the sources of stress, and to establish a robust baseline measurement of the
issues faced.  

RCL
has extensive experience in conducting quality of working life audits using
validated stress screening tools.  In
our experience, quality of working life audits can be multi-faceted and are
designed to provide a detailed diagnostic of the nature, location and severity
of stress experienced by employees. They are intended to measure staff
perceptions and concerns in areas that are known causes of pressure, such as
poor relationships at work and lack of control and influence, as well as their
consequences in terms of increased health risks, poor job satisfaction and
lower levels of commitment.

Understanding
the impact on staff of different sources of stress is important as
organisations can then build a business case for allocating resources to deal
with the issues that are having the most damaging effects.

This
type of rigorous diagnostic approach provides detailed management information
for organisations that often results in some form of culture change and more
effective performance.  It should lead
to a series of recommendations about tackling the key sources of pressure.  These may include introducing clearer
workflow planning, redesigning the work environment, introducing training for
managers in performance management techniques, or helping to develop work
relationships in teams.

Stress
awareness and personal resilience training

For
various reasons, it is not always possible to tackle some of the sources of
stress, although organisations should try to do so wherever possible.  In many of the quality of working life
audits conducted by RCL, we recommend that stress awareness and resilience
training should accompany attempts to deal with the sources of pressure.  

By
doing this, organisations are helping workers to develop their own personal
resilience.  It is important that stress
awareness training discusses the aspects of behaviour and thinking that can be
altered to help employees become more resilient.

Self-managed
learning tools

Where
attending a training course is not feasible, it might be appropriate to offer a
self-managed learning approach to stress awareness.  Ideally, both are offered to staff to maximise the opportunity
for the reinforcement of key learning points, and to afford staff the chance
for revision at some future time.  A
combined approach can therefore be seen to increase the value of the training
over a longer period of time through increasing the likelihood of permanent and
positive changes in behaviour. Self-managed learning resources are available on
CD-Rom, which allow workers to discreetly access help and revisit sections of
the training as needed.

Work
related pressures affect everybody; organisations suffer the consequences of
stress just as tangibly as their employees. 
Fortunately, awareness and understanding of the issues surrounding the
causes and consequences of stress (including the difference between stress and
pressure) is increasing.  

It
is in the interest of workers and their organisations to prevent workplace
stress and the current emphasis placed on this by the HSE is something that
should be welcomed.  Addressing this
issue in a positive fashion will ultimately deliver both the personal and
organisational goals of improved quality of working life and improved
performance. As these two are inextricably linked, it is good that employers
are beginning to see the connection.

Professor
Cooper is a founding director of Robertson Cooper Ltd, the Manchester-based
firm of business consultants, and is also professor of organisational
psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School.

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