Workplace Stress - the cause and the solution are the same
According to the HSE, in 2017/18 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health.
And whatever you are hearing in the media about a “snowflake generation” currently entering the workforce, 16-24 year-olds had the lowest levels of self-reported stress, depression and anxiety of any age group. They aren’t snowflakes, and they aren't the problem.
15.4 million working days were lost due to stress, depression and anxiety in 2017/8, and the trend is increasing. We have the third highest levels of work-related stress in the world, behind India and Germany.
Are you OK with that? Do you see it as an inevitable part of working life?
Because I’m not happy with it, and workplace stress isn't inevitable. As an HR professional I’m ashamed of it and horrified by it. We spent years and years making industries like construction safer to work in, only to allow a different kind of danger to pervade our workplaces. One that many seem resigned to, as if it "just happens" and there's nothing you can do about it.
I think workplace stress is going to be – if it isn’t already - a national disaster. And a couple of wellbeing initiatives aren't going to solve it.
The way we do business needs to change.
Because what frustrates me most is that just about all of the reasons given for work-related stress are things that managers could, quite easily, put right. Managers are both the cause and the solution to workplace stress, and the sooner we recognise this and start training our managers to understand how to properly manage people, the better our working lives will be.
Let’s have a look at the main causes of Workplace Stress, according to the HSE’s report.
Workload accounts for 44% of stress-related absence. Typically employees report they have too much work, deadlines are too tight, and they have been given too much responsibility for the rewards/skills they have or for the role as it is described in their job description (if they have one).
Now, you might be asking why I’m calling this out as a manager’s problem. After all, managers are busy too.
Well, here’s the problem. If you’re a manager, it’s your job to
select the right people for the roles they are to do,
train them in the skills they need to do the work well,
allocate a fair and appropriate amount of work suited to the skills of the employee and the hours they are contracted to work, and
monitor that work to ensure the employee is able to do it in the time given, with support from you if they need it.
I see a lot of managers who think their job is to give people work and either forget all about it, or take it in at the end of the day/week, rather like a teacher gives out and takes in homework. They take little or no interest in what their teams are actually doing all day long, and don’t really understand how to manage performance or how to monitor what is being done and spot the signs that things aren’t quite right. So employees aren’t able to perform at their best because they aren’t being shown how, or supported to improve their skills.
Then there are managers who agree to flexible working requests to allow people to reduce their working hours. Which would be fantastic if they also knew how to reduce workload to the same extent. So employees end up being paid for 3 days a week but still expected to do the same amount of work that they used to do in 5.
And managers who don’t accept that when you employ someone, that person’s life outside work is, actually, part of the package. Who think it’s OK to expect employees to change their plans last minute, be late picking their children up, or stay away overnight at very short notice. Not just once in a while, but week in, week out. Just like the managers who send emails late at night, they haven’t learnt how to plan either their own or their team’s time.
They are usually the same managers who balk at allowing time off to attend a hospital appointment, school play or to look after a sick child, and choose that moment to remind their employees how inconvenient their absence is for the business. Managers who don’t understand how to get the best from a diverse team, while ensuring everyone feels valued, or how a bit of give and take motivates and engages people. Managers who need to develop the confidence to measure performance based on outcomes (results) as well as inputs (time).
Lack of Support
This is given as the cause of 14% of work related stress, and you see it in managers who are too busy to speak to team members when something goes wrong or advice is needed because they are off doing the day job most of the time.
They don’t understand that their primary focus should be on doing whatever it takes to make sure the team can do their jobs well, because managing the team IS their day job.
And managers who are present in the workplace, but provide insufficient supervision – they don’t have regular 1:1s with their teams because they don’t see their value or know how to conduct them. Or they don’t have the skills – or make the time - to coach their teams and help them learn new skills
We need managers to manage, so employees can perform well at work. Who knew?
Violence, threats and bullying
It’s often swept under the carpet as “banter” or “robust management” that only negatively affects people who are too weak or flaky to cope with "normal working life". Frankly there is nothing normal about violence, threats and bullying, and it has no place at work.
But it accounts for 13% of workplace stress and is a clear sign that managers don’t fully understand their responsibilities to create a safe and inclusive working environment that respects difference and enables everyone to perform at their best.
Bullying doesn't just go from managers to employees either – managers also report violence, threats and bullying from their teams and their own bosses. Squeezed in the middle, under fire from all directions. The victims and perpetrators of a toxic workplace culture. Is it really 2019?
Changes at Work
Change accounts for 8% of work related stress. Now we all know that change is happening all the time, and we can’t stop it. But it causes stress when people feel they are not in control of their own situation.
We’ve all seen business change programmes launched with great fanfare. A big kerfuffle of consultation meetings where we tell employees their jobs are at risk/will be changing significantly/they’ll have to reapply for jobs.
And then radio silence for weeks as people are left dangling, wondering what their own outcome will be, worrying about the social, financial and practical aspects of a change they don’t actually understand. Asking questions their managers can’t – or won’t – answer.
Or simpler changes such as new processes that haven’t been fully tested. New technology that doesn’t yet have every part of the process “switched on” or that misses out a vital step that now has to be done manually, adding extra time and effort to a task. No money left to train staff properly, so they are left to work it out for themselves. Employees get frustrated because they could have identified the issues from the start but weren’t asked.
Employees need their managers to communicate more, and provide more support. But managers usually have very little support themselves, and often don’t know any of the answers either – for themselves or their team. Nor do they have any real understanding of the kind of support that helps people through change quickly and effectively.
We need a rethink about work, and what we expect of our employees.
But most of all we need a rethink about what it means to be a manager. An understanding that these problems are not inevitable – they are more commonly the result of the dozens of micro-decisions that managers make day in, day out. Managers who were probably never trained in how to be a manager. Who have no idea that by changing a few things, introducing some new routines, and having a clear structure for managing their teams they could achieve wildly different results.
We have high levels of workplace stress in the UK largely because of what managers prioritise, which invariably is the stuff they know how to do - the day job and fire-fighting. If managers knew what they should be prioritising – creating a great team, and coaching and supporting that team to do their jobs well – and understood how to do all these things, then not only could we reduce workplace stress significantly, but we would also
Increase employee morale
Reduce employee turnover
All it needs is for managers to know what they need to do, when and how.
I’ve got a solution for that. Have a look at my Accidental Manager programme, and imagine how your business could benefit from managers who know how to get the best from their teams.
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