The best laid plans…

No matter how much effort you put into ensuring that jobs are well-planned
and designed, the significant spanners that are poor line managers can wreck
everything. So how do you go about minimising their impact? Scott Beagrie
offers practical tips for HR to ensure job responsibilities are clearly
communicated down the line

Stress in the workplace cannot be cured overnight. Its cause is often
deep-rooted and the triggers are often hard to predict and identify. HR’s main
hope of dealing with it, and the destructive effect it has on the workplace, is
to put in place a robust stress management infrastructure that incorporates
measures aimed at treating both the symptoms and root causes of the problem.

For such a strategy to be successful, HR needs to ensure that key personnel,
such as line managers, take their share of responsibility for tackling it.
However, there is an inherent problem: poor line management is one of the
biggest causes of employee stress, whether through neglect of an individual, or
through general poor communications with their teams.

In Personnel Today’s 2003 report, UK Line Managers: Are they good enough?,
67 per cent of HR professionals interviewed said that technical skills are
considered more important than managerial skills within their organisations,
and 40 per cent said that people management skills are not a major factor when
recruiting line managers.

Although it might feel as if you are on your own when it comes to putting
together a strategy, much of it is a reassuring return to HR basics, as can be
seen from the practical steps outlined below.

Set your stress indicators

Introduce mechanisms for identifying stress, such as a stress audit, which
will also highlight why it’s occurring in the first place. Exit interviews and
monitoring sickness absence are also invaluable, as they provide a reason for
broaching the subject with an individual, as well as creating a confidential
forum for discussing their problems. Results from employee surveys or regular
chats with line managers (formal or casual) can also back up other data, and
help pinpoint frontline problems.

Design your strategy

This can be broken down into several components:

Job descriptions and job design

Evaluate all job designs and job descriptions and ensure they are
up-to-date, accurate and realistic – a major cause of stress is placing
unreasonable or unrealistic demands on an employee.

If rationalisation has occurred and resources have been cut, it may be that
an employee is now doing the job of one-and-a-half people, and no-one has

Make sure staff are clear on their chain of command, and where their own
jurisdiction begins and ends.

Job evaluation

Establishing the relative worth and ‘size’ of jobs so that they can be
graded within an organisation for the purposes of pay and reward is seen as a
reliable and unbiased way of setting pay scales. Being able to demonstrate that
the process is transparent should eliminate disillusionment among staff –
another agent of stress.

Personal development plans

Make full use of these as potential stressbusters. Next to the exit interview
(when it’s too late for the employee anyway), it’s one of the few opportunities
for a no-holds barred discussion with an employee.

Excessive work demands and continual deadlines are a major stress factor, so
setting attainable personal objectives should form the backbone of the
exercise, and serve to make the employee feel encouraged about the year ahead.

Improve communications

If line managers are poor communicators, it is down to HR to improve their
skills through training. Encourage a consultative and communicative culture
throughout the organisation – staff who are kept in the dark, or go unheard,
will inevitably feel undervalued, resulting in poor self-esteem. Introduce
regular staff meetings and one-to-ones to give them feedback, and exploit the company
intranet to keep the workforce up-to-date.

Appraise your company culture

Are all your employees valued and given the support and training they need
to do their jobs? The absence of a blame culture, combined with shared
ownership of decisions and risks, will prevent them from feeling vulnerable
when they slip up or when something goes wrong.

Consider flexible working options

Flexible working, or permitting certain individuals to work from home on
agreed days, could be the difference between losing a stressed-out employee
altogether, or gaining an enhanced performance for two days of the week.

Professional workplace support

Introduce a mental health workplace policy which encompasses concerns such
as support, counselling, returning to work and substance abuse. Make staff
aware of the policy, and that independent professional help is available to
them. Failure to do this could result in legal proceedings from the
stress-affected employees – especially if related to workplace bullying or
harassment. The existence of guidelines, backed up by a network of professional
services, will help to prevent situations from getting out of hand.

The role of management

Line managers and senior managers both have a significant role to play, and
HR needs to ensure any stress management strategy has their backing and that
they appreciate where they fit in. Every policy and procedure put in place –
from job descriptions to provision of professional counselling – must be seen
through by the line manager. If their people management skills are deficient,
remedial action must be taken. Performance development and coaching were
highlighted as problem areas for line managers in the UK Line Managers survey,
and it is HR’s duty to confront their shortcomings.

On the strength of this, there is also a compelling argument for sending all
line managers on a stress management course. Impress upon senior management the
importance of communicating organisational change and the reasons for it. Any
kind of reorganisation or restructuring breeds all kinds of insecurities, and
workers will operate on the basis of rumour if they don’t have the facts.

Lead by example

If you appear stressed and continually harassed, you are no good to the
company. Make sure that your own work-life balance is in check and that you
give the impression of being on top of your job at all times. As a great deal
of your time may be spent sorting out other people’s stress problems, it is a
good idea to create your own social support system based on friends, family and

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