Health & Safety, Leadership & Management

To prevent work stress, look at how your organisation is managed

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Imagine feeling light headed, having difficulty sleeping and constantly feeling run-down. Imagine regular anxiety attacks and frequent indigestion. Now imagine arriving at your workplace, looking at the building, and being filled with dread. I’m not talking about some infectious disease or accident, but a condition called work-related stress.

Nor am I exaggerating. What I’ve described above is absolutely true; and happened to me, many years ago, due to months of workplace bullying by senior management.

Workplace stress is a serious and alarmingly common condition. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) it accounts for the loss of some 11.7 million working days a year and 37% of all work related ill health. Meanwhile a recent TUC survey concluded that workplace stress was now at record levels in UK workplaces.

Stress is described as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or demands placed upon them. We all react differently to such pressures; and there are many techniques that individuals can use to control stress. But the most effective way to tackle work-related stress can be found in the workplace itself. Indeed, work-related stress is essentially preventable. It just requires organisations to remove or sufficiently control the hazards that cause the stress.

But its prevalence today suggests a lack of concern about staff well-being in rather too many workplaces. What’s more, according to the HSE, managers have a critical role in maintaining employee health and well-being, and minimising the likelihood of stressful situations. So it follows that looking at how an organisation is run should be the first step in preventing stress. All it requires is the leadership to make this happen.

To help, the HSE has produced some minimum management standards that employers can use when tackling work-related stress. These management standards cover the primary sources of stress at work which are:

  • Demands: workloads, working time, work patterns and the working environment
  • Control: how much or how little say an individual has in the way that they work
  • Support: the extent of organisational or managerial processes such as encouragement, acknowledgement, communications, training, development and resources
  • Relationships: the way interpersonal relationships are managed, the extent of conflict or otherwise, bullying and harassment etc.
  • Role: whether or not people understand their role within the organisation and how it relates to others (the degree of conflict or otherwise)
  • Change: the extent of organisational change and how it is managed.

By talking to staff, and looking at organisational culture, risk can be assessed against these standards; and then appropriate changes made to control or reduce those risks. Practical measures might include:

  • The introduction of clear business objectives, good communications and close employee involvement.
  • Providing staff with clearly defined objectives and responsibilities.
  • Considering ways to introduce flexibility and create a better work life balance for staff.
  • Providing opportunities for staff to contribute ideas, especially in planning and organising their own jobs.
  • Training managers in people skills so they can better support and encourage staff, even when things go wrong.
  • Giving staff an effective voice (eg. union representation).

Since my own experience with stress I’ve represented a large number of people who have been affected by this illness; and I’ve witnessed the profound affect it can have on individuals. In my view, too any employers wait for symptoms of stress to arise before they act, rather than taking steps to prevent stress occurring in the first place. This is clearly the wrong focus. But until this changes, work-related stress will remain a problem, and sadly, the impact of this damaging disease on individuals and organisations will continue.

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