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.”
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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 A$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”.
Technology is also exacerbating stress levels. Once an employee finished work and switched off.”We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were giving ourselves a natural respite in our days,” Clements says.”Now people are coming home and still connecting. They might not be actioning things; but even seeing a work message can trigger the fight-or-flight response. Generally the pace of work is faster because of technology.” Workplace social support is also weakening.”People are busier; we all rely on technology – we even email the person sitting next to us – rather than having face-to-face conversations with people,” Clements says.
However, many organisations and some supervisors and team leaders “may not fully appreciate how big an issue (stress) is for some of their employees”, Groth believes.”(Staff) need to hold everything in because if they show any sign of weakness it’s not going to look good and they may be penalised,” he says.”So they’re not going to necessarily know how stressed people are.”
The most effective way to manage stress is at the organisational level: overloaded staff can be given more resources and time. But Clements says the resources in many workplaces are shrinking.”Often those organisational resources can’t be changed; they seem to be getting tighter and tighter,” she says. Many managers are being forced to turn to boosting the coping abilities of their stressed-out staff through resilience training, which helps staff change and manage their emotional reactions and learn more adaptive ways to cope with demands and pressures.
“There has been a huge increase in requests for emotional resilience training in the last 18 months,” Clements says.”Managers are realising they cannot necessarily do anything about organisational resources and objectives, and we’re in a tough market. But individual managers are realising they want their team to last the distance and they need to be helping.”
Clements says managers are in a difficult situation.”They can see the organisation’s objectives and might not necessarily agree with those, but can’t do anything about them, but they also see staff struggling under those pressures. They’re wanting to do something for their staff.”
Resilience training can be effective. Clements says humans are like cars: when run down they are often out of fuel or energy. There are a number of ways to refuel, including exercise; spending time with colleagues, friends and family, even if it’s talking to a friend over the phone; and making some time outside of work for interests and hobbies. Maintaining physical wellbeing also boosts resilience. Drinking water, limiting coffee and alcohol, eating well, getting enough sleep and rest, and doing yoga, breathing or meditation may be helpful.
“Learning techniques to improve the quality of one’s thinking and reactions to pressures and demands is another key to boosting resilience, as well as mindfulness training which allows us to be in the present more often,” Clements adds.”It doesn’t really matter what the activity is, as long as you’re doing something for 20 minutes a day to top yourself up. The challenge is making the time to do something different and incorporate it into your lifestyle to improve personal resilience.”
But Caponecchia considers the trend of relying on emotional resilience training concerning.”These are things for which we’re not supposed to take an individual focus. It’s not meant to be about blaming the individual.” He says stress is a psychological hazard that’s meant to be managed like other workplace hazards as an occupational health and safety issue.”For any other hazard you would never make the individual the sole focus of attention,” he says.”If I was a construction worker and I was pulling down a building that was full of asbestos, you wouldn’t tell me to be very careful not to breathe in asbestos particles, would you?”
Caponecchia says that emotional resilience training is “okay” if used with other strategies.”I’ve seen some organisations put people into resilience programs when they knew they were going to go through change. They sent them all off to resilience training beforehand to buffer against this change. It’s a bad intervention when used by itself; there are much more effective strategies they could be using in addition, such as consultation.”
Clements agrees that if organisations are serious about building emotional resilience and assisting their staff to maintain effective work performance with positive wellbeing, then it should be a “two-level approach”.”That includes providing staff with personal resilience tools and strategies, but also developing organisational strategies and having constructive cultures to assist people to flourish even in the face of demands and pressures.”
The alternative way of managing workplace stress is changing tasks and restructuring organisations and thinking about job design. But “it’s not an easy thing to do”, Caponecchia indicates.
One of the major stressors at work, for example, is role conflict.”There is role conflict in one job where you’re being pulled apart in opposite directions: as part of the role you have to do one thing, but also have to do the opposite,” Caponecchia says. A call centre worker might be repeatedly told their organisation wants them to give absolutely stellar customer service; it’s all about customer service. But at the same time it might pressure operators not to spend long on the phone.
“That stuff can seem hard to solve,” Caponecchia says.”But there are ways to solve it – it’s about job redesign.” The call centre, for example, could have some people who deal with difficult cases who need more time, and others to deal with more regular, easy to solve issues.”
Caponecchia says stress management needs to be an organisation-wide strategy, rather than just frontline people trying to fix it, and it needs to be driven from the top.”Ideally it’s the chief executive,” he says.”They need to be aware of this. Smart CEOs know stress affects their bottom line. They know that if you get the tasks and work conditions right then productivity goes up.”
But frontline managers are not always supported at the organisational level, or given more resources. So what should they do?
Groth, who has studied how service employees deal with the emotional pressures of their jobs, says it’s important to create a climate where people can openly address stress issues as they arise. Another key is to select the right people for the job: some people are more prone to get stressed out. Another strategy is training: service staff, for example, can be given empathy training where they learn to put themselves in the shoes of other people and try to see issues from the other person’s point of view.
Rest and breaks are also beneficial. Groth knows of one call centre that had a small breakout room with a punching bag where employees could go to let off steam.”That can be quite helpful; allowing people to take breaks and get offstage and be themselves, vent and relieve their stress,” he says.
Certainly there’s action that frontline managers can take, Caponecchia concedes, but it’s “less effective than changing the tasks”, he insists.”It may be more about supervision and support and providing feedback to people about their tasks. Helping employees to ensure they’re doing their tasks well, and giving them some feedback about it, some recognition; informal kind of stuff – making the context more positive.”
Managers also need to perform “a monitoring function”, keeping an eye on how personal relationships are going and watch to see if someone is getting frustrated and angry, Caponecchia suggests. Ultimately smart organisations should not leave stress management entirely to their frontline managers or their staff.”Those kinds of issues (stress), or other issues of health and safety, need to be dealt with at the same level as other objectives because they affect organisational outputs,” Caponecchia says. Clements agrees that when the culture is one of support, achievement and strong relationships, people can thrive in high-performance environments.”But the moment the culture or leadership changes to a lack of support, people feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.”