In a tough economic environment, as organisations try to do more with less, staff become stressed. Frontline managers find themselves in a difficult situation; stuck between a demanding, inflexible organisation and burnt out staff.
Under recently harmonised national workplace health and safety (WHS) legislation, Australian managers are now obliged to act to address employees’ stress levels as they can be held personally liable for the psychological welfare of their staff. Many have turned to “emotional resilience training” to help workers cope with greater demands. Is that a cop out? Should organisations and managers shift responsibility for stress onto staff, rather than face the more difficult changes at an organisational level to alleviate stress?
“(Resilience training) is a very worrying trend because it puts responsibility back onto the individual,” says Carlo Caponecchia, an academic at the University of New South Wales School of Aviation. “The implication with resilience is that (the organisation) know this bad stuff is going to happen to you as a consequence of our system, so we make you responsible for the extent to which it affects you.”
As many organisations slim down the resources, time and help they provide staff, managers – and even workers themselves – need to be aware of how to manage stress levels. But to alleviate the worst aspects of the problem, stress management needs to come from the top and be spread through the organisation.
Stress is not always bad. “A healthy amount of moderate stress is often good for the individual and the organisation; it drives people, it makes them more productive and keeps them goal-focused,” says Markus Groth, an expert in emotions at work at the Australian School of Business. “If there is no stress and work is routine, it’s boring and people don’t feel challenged.”
Stress becomes negative when demands on an individual exceed their personal resources to cope. It then has potentially severe impacts on physiology, behaviours, moods and quality of thinking. This negative stress results in changes to the bottom line in terms of performance, including absenteeism, accidents, injuries, tardiness, serious performance issues, conflicts, grievances and other human resources issues.
Businesses recognise stress is a cost, Caponecchia says, but it is a “fuzzy cost” and does not necessarily show up in the data. A staff member might be absent due to burnout, but they simply get a medical certificate. Staff turnover is also a “fuzzy” cost because it is not always explicitly or obviously linked to stress. “The impact of stress is difficult for (employers) to get a handle on,” admits Caponecchia.”But I don’t think it’s a long bow to say stress costs a lot of money.”
A report by health and safety agency Safe Work Australia found overwork and stress cost Australia A$30 billion a year – half the total workplace injury bill. An Econtech report in 2007 found that stress-related “absenteeism” and “presenteeism” – when staff are present, but not performing duties – directly cost Australian employers A$10.1 billion annually. These figures do not include hidden costs of recruitment and reskilling resulting from staff turnover.
Stress also triggers workers compensation claims; claims for psychological injury in NSW average $29,000 and the average time off is 20 weeks. “There are significant costs on the organisation’s bottom line, so they can’t really take the risk,” says Rachel Clements, director of psychological services at the Sydney-based Centre for Corporate Health.
Caponecchia says compensation claims are the “tip of the iceberg” and that for every compensation claim,”umpteen others experience stress.”
Pressure on managers
There is mounting pressure for managers to deal with stress in organisations with harmonisation of workplace health and safety legislation from January this year in many states, and later in others. Under the legislation, there are provisions for “officers” – typically, these are individuals who participate in making decisions that affect the whole, or a substantial part, of an organisation. “Various managers would be ‘officers’, to the extent they make a decision that negatively impacts on health and safety, if something goes wrong they can be held personally liable in addition to the company,” Caponecchia notes. For severe breaches, managers can be fined up to A$600,000 and face five years’ imprisonment. With the advent of the “officer” class, organisations are more worried than before, according to Caponecchia. But many, particularly SMEs, have no idea of the heightened risk.
Clements points out that Australians are more stressed and less resilient than 10 to 15 years ago. There are more “hypersensitive” people – a personality style where people are more prone when under pressure to respond very “emotionally”.