Stress busters

Feeling stressed out at work is nothing new, but that does not mean that organisations need to tolerate it.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), sickness absence costs the UK about £12bn a year, and stress-related absence accounts for £3.7bn of that. But in some sectors – education, health services, central government, local authorities and financial services – about half of all days lost to work-related ill health are due to stress.

Stress management workshops

The scale of the problem has prompted the HSE to offer 1,500 organisations free, one-day workshops this autumn to explain its management standards for work-related stress. Launched in November 2004, the standards set out clear objectives that organisations must meet to enable them to conduct an accurate risk assessment of stress levels and tackle its key causes.

But could training provide a remedy for stress where other approaches have failed? Although not every employer will qualify for the HSE’s free workshops, there are plenty of other training options available that could provide valuable support.

Nottingham company Formation Training and Development runs stress-busting workshops, offering training tips for employers on coping strategies and how to deal with stress in others.

Managing director Amanda Pearce-Burton says most stress is related to management of work, relationships at work, organisational set-up and whether employees feel in control of their work.

“Some of the possible triggers include excessive time pressures, inflexible working hours, inadequate training and possibilities for learning new skills, organisational confusion, and generally operating with a poor work-life balance,” she says.

The stress-busting workshops can help managers and staff recognise symptoms before problems escalate.

“Symptoms range from headaches, a less effective immune system and difficulty sleeping to the general feeling that you can’t cope,” says Pearce-Burton.

The e-learning solution

Where workshops are not feasible, some organisations have turned to e-learning as a means of spreading a consistent message on stress to a wide audience within a manage-able budget. Kevin Young, managing director of e-learning provider SkillSoft, says: “E-learning helps staff access material in learning chunks. The approaches we take to training include the underlying principles of stress management, effective time management and an assessment of whether staff are proficient in their job, as a lack of proficiency also causes stress.”

Employees access a portal and work through modules designed to help them recognise the symptoms of stress and address their work-life balance. The cost of SkillSoft’s packages vary, but Young says that for larger organisations, it works out at just a few pounds per head.

Another e-learning provider, Aspina, launched a stress management package in March this year, which can be implemented on an organisation’s intranet and costs £2,000 plus a licence fee, depending on how many people will need access. The main thing in its favour is its brevity, according to Aspina’s learning director Richard Fellows. “The whole programme should take about an hour and a half,” he says. “We have integrated games and quizzes to punctuate different modules and help information sink in.”

Online packages may not be enough to get the message to hit home, however. And Fellows suggests that e-learning be complemented by classroom training.

“Blended learning always works best. It can be hard for people to engage with e-learning for more than a couple of hours.”

Classroom-based training

Carole Spiers, director of stress management consultancy Carole Spiers Group, says that classroom-based communications training works best.

“This trains managers to recognise symptoms and, even more importantly, they learn how to do something about them,” she says. “Managers may see someone crying at their desk or having a temper tantrum, but they don’t know what to do and so just leave it as it is. This leaves the employee feeling like their manager does not care, and the problem escalates.

“Simple communication from managers, such as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ can help staff to feel valued and reduce stress levels. The classroom environment is important as people need to role-play to learn which words they need to use.”

And Spiers says training should start with senior management if others are to learn from their example.

However, training can only go so far, adds Spiers, and if organisations are to reap the benefits in the long run, stress management has to become part of the organisation’s corporate philosophy.

Top tips for managing stress through training

  •  Train managers first so they set an example to the rest of the workforce.

  • Ensure training incorporates the HSE’s management standards. See for more details.

  • Training should include learning how to recognise stress symptoms in others.

  • Provide practical advice to tackle real-life scenarios.

  • Role-playing can be a valuable training tool.

  • To maximise their benefit, ensure e-learning sessions last no longer than a couple of hours. 

  • Blended learning works best – consider both e-learning and classroom training.

In Training & Coaching Today this month…

– In-depth features on unusual training days, psychometrics and sector skills councils.

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