Tackling organisational stress at work

Methods of tackling stress at work that focus on teams as well as individuals can help to reduce conflict and cut absence. Jenny Rafferty explains.

Company awaydays are often used to explore interpersonal conflict when tensions are thought to be symptomatic of wider organisational life. In the occupational health service featured in this article, organisational support was developed to provide an alternative to individual counselling sessions when a person’s distress was thought to be symptomatic of wider organisational issues.

Evidence suggests that counselling services that focus on individual-oriented techniques are limited because they do not consider what the stress might say about the wider organisation. This means that when an individual is referred for counselling, their working life should be considered, not to absolve responsibility from the person, but to establish whether or not there is any relational context between organisational matters and the symptoms with which the individual presents.

The NHS has recently embarked upon a modernisation agenda with efficiency at the core of its strategy (Collins 2006). This has the potential to affect the quality of relationships because organisational change has been negatively associated with workplace stress (Ferrie 2004).

Despite this, there is no systematic and coherent strategy that tackles the impact that stress can have, both on individuals and organisations (Cottrell 2001). Many workplace stress management programmes focus on teaching employees how to cope with the effects of stress individually (Edwards and Burnard 2003) and, although useful, this approach fails to consider the impact that workplace culture and relationships have (Collins 2006).

Team conflict is negatively associated with team cohesion and performance (Tekleab et al 2009) and is recognised for the stress it causes to individuals (HSE 2005).

Individuals are more susceptible to stress when relationships at work are not supportive (Moyle 2006), which makes them more likely to take time off sick (Paton 2006). This supports the view that lack of support from colleagues and peers impacts on behaviour to such an extent that work performance reduces (Porath and Erez 2009).

This study was concerned with the impact of an awayday on a team experiencing high levels of interpersonal conflict. Awaydays have been recognised as an effective approach to considering issues such as team building and bonding because of the communication and networking opportunities they offer (Gilbert 2008).

Using the grounded theory approach to qualitative research (Glaser and Strauss 1967), the study set out to explore experiences of an awayday in order to discover the impact that they have on the individuals concerned both at the time and afterwards when they return to work. Data collected was via semi-structured interviews and processed using the grounded theory approach to ensure that themes generated remained true to participants.

Following analysis of the data, five major themes were identified:

  • relationships;
  • facilitation;
  • absence;
  • sustainability; and
  • change.

Facilitators were felt to be supportive as they were able to sit outside the usual hierarchical relationships of management, were seen to be independent and helped to provide an environment in which more open participation was encouraged. This is supported by Sarra (2005) when he proposes that facilitators from outside the usual power dynamics of management are often able to open discussions more freely because people feel less inhibited.

This became evident when there was discussion about people who had not attended the awayday raising concern about talking about them in their absence. This in some ways replicated situations when absence at work was seen to be a powerful way of communicating disengagement with the rest of the team.

Analysing reasons for absence

The situation with absences could affect working relationships because when things got difficult, not everyone would meet together to take responsibility for trying to sort things out. Hooper and Potter (1997) suggest that introducing change can be difficult because it involves challenging the status quo. In other words, absence could have been used as a tool to keep things the same so that new ways of working would not be possible.

However, it is not suggested that this was conscious obstruction, more that some people find change in any circumstance difficult and that it suits them for things to stay the same.

Some people thought that the day should have been cancelled because not everyone was present. However, it seemed important that facilitators supported managers in going ahead because failure to do so would have served to repeat old patterns of behaviour and would reinforce the view that change could be implemented only with agreement from everyone. This seemed to increase confidence and gave a clear signal that things were going to be different.

The other issue this raised was that non-attendance could be seen to challenge the authority of managers. If behaviour at the awayday was seen to be symptomatic of relationships in general, this suggests that individuals could sometimes see themselves in positions that gave authority to choose what they would and would not do. This could mean that at times during work, some people behaved in ways that exerted authority on other members of the team that may have inhibited collaborative working.

Concerns were raised about how lessons learnt would be implemented on returning to work, particularly in relation to colleagues who had not attended. Facilitators teased out concerns and led discussions on how to ensure that any change introduced was inclusive of everyone, whether they had attended or not.

The awayday provided an opportunity to rehearse skills in readiness for returning to work which ensured that there was a collective voice from those present about how things needed to be different. This seemed to be effective because relationships improved and absent colleagues were acknowledged, in time, to have changed their practice too.

Many teams face diverse working situations where not everyone works the same shifts, days, hours or in the same office. The awayday provided a forum for debating issues and finding resolution but more importantly identified that decisions could be made when not everyone was present.

Keep communicating

It was highlighted that appropriate communication processes are essential in order that everyone feels informed about what has been decided. This concurs with the work by Majchrzak et al (2004) who support the notion that effective communication systems are even more essential when teams do not meet on a regular basis.

A series of events obliged people to work together on a number of small and large group tasks. Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) identified that in order to develop competence and proficiency, new skills need to be observed and practised, a view supported by Seibold and Kang (2008) who identified that team building, like many other skills, needs to be learnt.

Tuckman’s theory of group development (1965) recognises that groups need to work through conflict in order to be able to work effectively. Difficulties in teams could be seen as a particular development stage.

As well as group development stages, Hooper and Potter (2001) have identified that individuals need to pass through a series of stages as they respond to the need to change. According to Hooper and Potter, it could be argued that some individuals actively engage in introducing change, while others exercise resistance by, for example, being absent.

This raises a question about the impact that facilitation can have on the speed at which groups reach the point when they are able to perform and individuals reach an active engagement phase. This needs further investigation but might help explain why awaydays are thought to be effective.

Facilitators were seen to be able to provide a structure within which progress or lack of it could be tracked. Reporting lack of progress to facilitators did not seem to be a comfortable option and provided some of the motivation to ensure that change would be continued.

Care should be taken however, to ensure that while the responsibility for change clearly rested with the team, authority for this was identified to be with managers.

Monitoring can present dilemmas. For example, reduced conflict could have been seen by some to be significant progress while others might have preferred to see progress being with tasks. This research demonstrated that the progress and success were different for different people dependent on their experience and therefore, this makes it difficult to measure.

Identifying the cause of tensions

Facilitators seemed to be able to help people reflect on the issues they faced by helping to recognise what causes difficult relationships at work. Team process became more focused towards relationships and communication as team working improved. When individuals behave more cohesively towards one another, group activity is more easily achieved resulting in higher levels of job satisfaction and organisational commitment (Moorman 1991).

This concurs with the findings of Tekleab et al (2009) who identified that when team conflict is managed effectively, team cohesion and performance improve. Gilbert (2008) agrees with this by suggesting that awaydays have significant value when looking at methods to enhance team performance because of the communication and networking opportunities they offer. Increasing team cohesion and identity could be explained by suggesting that psychological contracts were strengthened.

These contracts are created about a set of mutual expectations perceived between an employer and employee which exert influence over what a person believes and how they behave at work (Robinson and Rousseau 1994).

Much has been written about how psychological contracts need to change in relation to changing expectations (Herzberg et al 1995) if individuals and organisations are to survive (Handy 1995).

Adjusting the approach

It could be suggested, therefore, that the awayday provided an opportunity to review expectations through a process of individual (Hooper and Potter 2001) and group development (Tuckman 1965).

Psychological contracts could have been re-aligned within the context of a changing environment (Cavanagh 1996). This is an important point to consider because it implies that team awaydays contribute to organisational development because they provide opportunities to explore and understand a changing world.

While many stress management programmes concentrate on strategies to reduce distress experienced at an individual level, this research has identified that organisational support helps to reduce conflict when individual issues are thought to be symptomatic of difficulties within the wider team. This contributes to the literature on managing stress because it offers another approach when considering strategic approaches to stress management (Sutherland and Cooper 2000).

Despite this study having concentrated on relationships within one team, Collins (2006) suggests that owing to the pressure of working in a modern NHS, relationships are more likely to become strained and this should therefore now be considered to be the norm.

However, relationship conflict has been negatively associated with distress caused to individuals which affects health, job satisfaction, motivation and performance. Preece (2008) suggests that managers need help and support to manage the challenges at work in order to prevent individual distress and subsequent medicalisation of symptoms.

Since employers face both ethical and legal responsibilities to safeguard the health and wellbeing of employees (Ayling 2006), they need to address work related conflict in ways that support both individual and team development.

In this way, organisational support builds upon the work of Jensen (1999) by helping to develop a culture that is based more around core values than core business.

Jenny Rafferty is a lecturer in occupational health nursing and Specialist Community Public Health Nursing academic lead at Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust PCT.


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