Going head-to-head with stress

One of the biggest challenges of tackling stress in your organisation will probably be finding time in your already stressed schedule to work out how to deal with it.

However, dealing with stress is rushing to the top of the list of business concerns in both private and public sectors.

Estimates show that stress accounts for 13 million lost working days a year – at an estimated cost of £3.7bn. The average number of working days lost in each work-related stress case now stands at 29.

On a positive note, the reams of data collected by HR make it relatively straightforward to show how stress impacts on sickness absence, and how HR initiatives can be translated into financial savings for the company.

Where to start?
At the T&F Informa Practical Solutions to Reducing Stress in the Workplace conference in London last week, the message was that companies looking to combat stress among staff should make sure line managers are equipped for the job.

But first you have to make it clear that managers are free to manage without continually worrying about stressed staff.

“Having stress issues raised by staff does not mean that managers have to retreat to a position that everything an employee asks for has to be done,” said Steve Clark, corporate HR manager at Sheffield City Council.

Dr Rosemary Anderson, from the Anderson Peak Performance consultancy, said this meant differentiating between stress and pressure.

“Pressure is good for us – we need it to do well in our lives,” she said. “Stress arises when the pressure becomes excessive.”

Anderson said that to clarify this divide, stress could be split into three types of symptom: physiological, psychological and behavioural. She said that physical problems, such as blurred vision, backache and an inability to sleep, could act as indicators to managers that stress is affecting their teams.

“The physiological examples get buy-in when you are training managers about the effects of stress,” Anderson said. “It gets people thinking there might be something in it.”

Get to know your team
If managers make a point of knowing what the people in their team are like, Anderson said, they could then see when stress was causing them to behave differently. This awareness would mean managers could make small changes, which could make a big difference.

Clark said staff forums at Sheffield City Council showed that employees would not ask for the impossible.

“For example, letting one of our staff go home 10 minutes early made all the difference to her ability to carry out her caring responsibilities. She just hadn’t had the courage to ask,” he said.

Managers are not counsellors
If new processes to manage stress are being put into place, focused training of line managers on stress and how to deal with it is imperative, according to Mike Wagland, lead health and safety adviser at British Telecom (BT).

He said that BT had set up a new stress risk assessment and management programme, but had not given managers training in their new roles until months later.

  • “You can’t expect managers to be counsellors – they need to know where to draw the line with their intervention,” Wagland said.

    10 tips to reduce workplace stress

    Adopt the attitude that stress is not a weakness and develop this culture in your department
  • Ensure that you yourself are not suffering from stress
  • Analyse your management style and behaviour. Ask yourself (honestly) if this is causing any stress
  • Ensure the work environment is suitable – for example, is there noise or crowding?
  • Help your staff to cope with change – big or small
  • Improve communications: tell people they are part of a great organisation
  • Put yourself in your employees’ shoes
  • Do regular informal risk assess-ments to ensure nobody is subjected to work-related stress
  • Encourage staff to attend a personal stress management course or provide them with tips to help themselves
  • Know your staff: recognise individual strengths and weak-nesses – they need to feel their contribution matters

Source: the International Stress Management Association

Case study: BT’s strategy for tackling stress in the workplace

BT has created a three-tiered approach to stress, which allows it to deal with the individual issues that each person faces.

The first tier – primary prevention – is concerned with making sure job designs, workplace design and workflows are correct.

The second tier – intervention – includes individual assessment and line manager inter-vention, while the latter stage is rehabilitation through counselling and occupational health.

The second stage is where the company can analyse individual staff and is called Stream (stress risk assessment and management).

It is a voluntary process that begins with a 10-minute online questionnaire, which has been independently certified by Kings College in London.

Depending on the extent of the stress suffered by the employee, stress levels are coded into green, amber or red.

The questionnaire splits the reasons for stress into six categories of pressure: demand, change, control, relationships, support and roles.

It provides an analysis of the top four stress factors facing the employee, and is then sent in confidence to the user and line manager, who discuss it in person.

This stage is the most controver-sial, according to Mike Wagland, lead health and safety adviser at BT, but it is essential to making sure the information is acted upon by trained line managers.

Senior managers receive the combined results, which remain anonymous, so that they can see the levels of stress in their departments. The information is also collated and given to the board-level BT stress management group.

Wagland said that the process is structured closely to the Health & Safety Executive’s stress manage-ment standards, so BT can then benchmark itself against others.

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