Workplaces feel the strain

As evidence pinpoints reasons for stress at work, so calls for action are growing. But many managers would argue that commercial pressures call for a balance. Philip Whiteley reports

Managers used to talk about stress; now they suffer from it. Traditionally it has been the case that while executives talk about work pressures, junior employees are far more likely to suffer, because they have less control and therefore less say.

But now everyone is insecure, says leading academic Cary Cooper, who informally advises the Health & Safety Executive on stress issues. “Lack of control is the critical factor in stress; however, from the shop floor to the top floor people have less control. We have a short-term contract culture. You are there when you are needed, you are a disposable asset.”

This is reflected in findings from the lengthy Health & Safety Executive research into workplace stress, which has taken place over the past year. It found a unanimous desire among whom the organisations polled that more needs to be done about the issue. (Personnel Today, 20 June)


Code support


Cooper, who is Bupa professor of organisational psychology and health at Umist, thinks one of the surprising findings of the study is that, of the seven out of 10 respondents who backed a statutory code of practice, employers were as enthusiastic as staff.

“That stuns me,” says Cooper. “You would have thought it would be 80 per cent of employees and only 15 per cent to 20 per cent of employers. That is really positive.”

More positive still, Cooper argues that stress is a problem that can be fixed. “We have the science behind us. We do not need more research. We can identify the risk factors now.”

The main triggers are a lack of control, long working hours, inflexible working arrangements, too much work and autocratic management, including bullying.

If managers now agree that these are hazards to be dealt with, the battle would seem almost won.

It is not so simple, however. On the shortest period of reflection it becomes clear that these factors are rooted deeply in the culture of an organisation, and might take years to turn around. Second, there is competitive pressure and the need to have a responsive workforce, rather than one which watches the clock, thinking only about their own welfare. So there is a balancing act.

“Some people still believe that working 70 hours a week shows commitment.” says personnel director of the London Borough of Enfield Angela O’Connor. “To me it is not an indication of a productive member of staff at all. We do not want people working themselves into illness and early retirement. It is also a terrible role model.

“At the other end of the spectrum we do not want people who count every minute. It is about people being grown up about these issues.”

Gail Cotton, president of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners, says stress in an employee is not always work-related.

“You may need certain stresses at work but you do not need all the stresses together, it is often work plus something else.”

This may, however, lead to a solution in the workplace, as it could be that different hours help an employee deal with domestic problems.


Supervision issue


Cooper, although optimistic, acknowledges that there is no automatic way of ensuring good practice if the newly convinced managers are prevented from action by commercial pressures.

“The only problem I see with the code is: who monitors it? We have tools for monitoring organisations, ensuring that hours and management style are reasonable, but you would have to have a new army of people doing the monitoring.”

But it may be enough for an HR manager to bring about change, as the personnel specialist has more leverage than is commonly recognised.

Cooper advocates that they carry out a risk assessment analysis, together with occupational health specialists, and involve line managers.

What if the assessment reveals an ingrained culture of working until 7pm and there is a bullying manager? What would force the organisation to change? “If there were an Approved Code of Practice you would have to do it,” says Cooper. “There is so much research evidence that bullying can damage people’s health, therefore it is foreseeable. You are in legal trouble anyway, even without the code.”

One organisation which has carried out a stress audit is the London Borough of Enfield, which commissioned an outside specialist.

“The things that came out of that were comments such as ‘not enough hours in the day’. But a lot of the issues relate to how managers manage; things you would think are simple, such as communication,” says O’Connor. “Managers have to be able to articulate a clear vision of where they are going and where they want the team to be.”

Matters such as communication and interpersonal skills – often dubbed the “soft” skills – should really be seen as central to good management, she argues. The immediate manager is the most important figure for an employee, and if he or she has difficulty managing then the experience will be stressful, regardless of other factors.

“We did exercises with a group of managers and got them to identify the best and worst experience with a manager they had had. You have never heard such passion. People still felt keenly even 15 or 20 years after the event,” says O’Connor.


Integral policy


Similarly, a strategy for reducing stress must be part of general management, not a separate activity prone to downgrading or treated as a one-off.

“It can be undermined if it is seen as something separate. It has to be entirely streamlined into the way you are developing as an organisation. It is like Investors in People – unless it is integral it just does not work.”

All managers take note. The Health & Safety Commission has asked the HSE to draw up management procedures to advise employers. If employers do not take heed, they cannot complain if there are new laws.

www.hse.gov.uk

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