Organisational change is reported to be one of the biggest causes of stress for employees. Julie Courtney looks at what employers can do to help employees develop resilience to overcome work-related stress.
There is a wide range of evidence on employee wellbeing that suggests having happier, healthier, more engaged employees makes good business sense. But in the CIPD’s 2014 absence report, one-third of businesses reported an increase in stress among staff over the past year, one of the most common causes of absence and one not being effectively addressed in the workplace.
Chronic stress can lead to cognitive impairment and mental-health disorders, taking its toll on emotions, memory functions and the ability to think clearly. Unfortunately, many treatments for stress are merely coping strategies and they do not necessarily help an individual to build resilience, to overcome difficulties as they happen or to react to challenges with composure. And they do not help when the stress is actually taking place and having its effect on the physical and mental health of employees.
Finding a way to manage stress as it is happening can have multiple benefits to both the employee and the employer, and this is the key to reducing stress-related absences.
Resilience to stress can be nurtured to help people face the manifold challenges of the modern lifestyle – both in an employee’s working life and home life. Personal resilience is an important issue because everyone reacts differently to specific problems, so there should not be a “one size fits all” approach to beating stress.
Applying personal resilience strategies in a corporate setting
When a restructure of his division was being considered, Aaron Clayton, then international head of HR at Legal & General, immediately put a “support for change” initiative in place. Having experienced the benefits of proactive resilience versus reactive stress management, Clayton recognised a need to return to some basic principles of dealing with people, so that staff felt safe to come forward with their issues.
The “support for change” initiative included a group workshop, ahead of any formal announcement, for those potentially affected and one-to-one coaching for those who wished to gain a deeper level of support.
Whatever the business, a personal resilience programme can be tailored to any situation. Coaching can be targeted at an area of the workforce engaged in a fast-paced function, such as call-centre workers or traders, or for managers during transitional situations, in order to help them diffuse their own stress and lead their team effectively.
In this instance, Clayton’s division was facing a turbulent time and, on top of the normal everyday pressures, a level of uncertainty had set in. With some long-haul travel, back-to-back meetings and too many tasks on the to-do list, it was difficult for employees to focus on what they were actually trying to achieve.
The workshops helped individuals to see the more positive side of the situation and to refocus their goals both personally and professionally. In one-to-one coaching, employees were challenged to delve deep and by using raw, core personal values and emotions they could become more proactive and see opportunities where previously they saw only obstacles.
Practices to support resilience at work
There are several practices such as Mindfulness, HeartMath and simple breathing techniques that can be incorporated into corporate wellbeing interventions that will enable employees to manage their stress in the moment. While these techniques are simple and practical, they can be life changing in helping people to manage pressure more positively.
The HeartMath system was applied in the workshops at Legal & General. It uses innovative approaches to teach clients how to change the variability in their heart rate in order to create “coherence” – a scientifically measurable state. Supporting technology allows the client to measure results accurately and see the improvements being made. When a state of coherence has been achieved, the individual is more balanced, able to judge situations clearly and can react accordingly, and does not suffer from the negative effects of stress on the body.
As a result of the resilience workshops and one-to-one coaching sessions at Legal & General, Clayton reported that there had been no stress-related absences during consultation, teams within the division had bonded, and a positive atmosphere of care, trust and transparency had been created.
On an individual basis, employees felt empowered to take charge of their own destiny in a positive way, were equipped to recognise stress and possessed the resilience skills to deal with it. Those who took part in one-to-one sessions moved quickly into new and more challenging roles.
The methods that personal resilience provide can be mastered typically in a few one-hour coaching sessions or a group workshop, but the techniques can last a lifetime.