Helping your managers to deal with stress in their teams
Work related stress has been on the increase for a number of years, (ref Annual Sickness Absence Survey 2013
) with a corresponding decrease in productivity and effectiveness for those individuals experiencing stress at work.
I chose the term 'experiencing' deliberately. Stress is not an illness, it is a state. And stress is not an absolute, but a personal perception. A deadline may be tight and the task at hand a stretch. Whether this leads to stress or outstanding performance depends on the way in which the individual experiences the pressure placed on them by the task and accompanying deadline.
Therefore, there is unfortunately no blueprint protocol that a manager can take off the shelf and follow in the event that a member of their team experiences stress. And this often scares managers.
Indeed many managers see stress as something they should hand over to HR to deal with. HR professionals are therefore often called upon to advise managers, and this can bring its own challenges, particularly if the manager is themselves a factor in the stress the employee is experiencing.
The good news is that there are a number of steps that managers can take to manage stress in their teams, and HR professionals can draw on these to enable and empower line managers.
These steps can be broken down into four phases:
1. Exploring and understanding values, beliefs and assumptions about stress
2. Leading by example
3. Actively creating a good work environment for all
4. Knowing when to seek further support and where to find it1. Exploring and understanding values, beliefs and assumptions about stress
The way in which a manager responds to stress in a member of their team will depend on how they themselves think about stress. For example if a manager believes that all employees should be able to cope with whatever is asked of them, and one of their core values is to be self-sufficient; they might be making the assumption that an employee experiencing stress is overreacting, being 'work shy' or simply not up to the job.
It is precisely this fear that these are the thoughts going through the manager’s mind that often prevent an employee from approaching their line manager to ask for help.
Discussing values, beliefs and assumptions can be a delicate process. However HR professionals can make it clear what the organisational values, beliefs and assumptions are in relation to stress at work, for example placing value on treating each employee as an individual; believing that asking for help is a sign of strength and assuming that all employees are striving to achieve their best and to perform at their best and that sometimes they need some extra support to do so.
This gives line managers a clear message to follow in how they personally think about stress.2. Leading by example
It is essential that line managers are able to manage themselves in such a way as to prevent stress or recognise and deal with it when they do experience it. This is for two reasons:
i) The best way to promote desired behaviour in a team is to model it. For example a line manager who manages their workload effectively, handles relationships well and looks after themselves will provide a far better role model than one who works excessive hours, has poor working relationships or is continually ill.
ii) A line manager who is experiencing stress will themselves be underperforming. Impaired judgement, errors and lack of concentration are common symptoms of stress and ones that are not conducive to supporting employees who are also experiencing stress.
Managers may therefore need to develop their own coping mechanisms for example in managing pressure, dealing with heavy workloads, meeting tight deadlines, juggling multiple priorities, handling challenging relationships and resolving conflict.
They may also benefit from building their resilience, which involves adopting the practices, attitudes and behaviours that enable them to maintain their performance even under difficult circumstances. Sometimes small changes such as taking a 15 minute break at lunchtime, being solution focused and giving positive feedback can have a major impact on the manager and their team.
The organisational approach to performance management can play a role here. Are managers rewarded for the performance of their team, whatever the cost? Or are managers penalised if they and their teams work evenings and weekends, have high sickness absence rates or are known across the organisation for appearing to be stressed?3. Actively creating a good work environment for all
As well as managing themselves, managers have a key role in creating a climate and environment for their team that promotes good work. Using the HSE management standards
(see table below) as a framework, managers can proactively manage their teams to ensure that potential triggers of stress are identified and dealt with at an early stage.
And this can be particularly helpful when an individual cites workload as a cause of their stress at work. Sometimes the amount of work is so excessive that it can lead to stress, but very often there are other factors that, once addressed, make the workload feel manageable.
For example, lack of role clarity can lead to an employee spending considerable time managing a plethora of expectations about their role, which not only takes up time but also valuable energy.
Processes and working practices can also make a manageable workload into a source of stress, for example requests made on a Friday afternoon for work needed by Monday morning or meetings scheduled that clash with an employee’s flexible working arrangements. Where organisations are spread across locations with multiple time zones such considerations can be particularly pertinent.
It should be born in mind that the manager is not expected to be a mind-reader. He cannot anticipate every possible potential trigger of stress for all members of his team. They too have a responsibility for flagging issues that need to be addressed and for suggesting solutions.
And some issues will be beyond the manager's control. An organisational culture that demands weekend working, month end crises and a confrontational style of relationship will be tough for any one manager and team to overturn.
Similarly, some issues may be within the manager's control, but may be better dealt with by the individual themselves.
Should the manager intervene to create role clarity, or empower and develop the individual to manage the relationships in such a way as to create clarity for themselves?
Should the manager shield the team from some of the peaks in workload or more challenging relationships, or should he help them to develop their working practices and resilience to enable them to cope better with these circumstances?
The answers to these questions are part and parcel of the role of a line manager where judgement is needed to determine the most appropriate response in each situation and for each individual. It may not be a case of a one size fits all approach, and this is where the HSE management competencies can be helpful. See table below for examples of competencies in each of the four areas identified by the HSE.
Managers can complete a self-diagnostic
to determine the extent to which they demonstrate these competencies. Support from HR in digesting and acting on the results of this diagnostic can be helpful.
It is area 3 that most often troubles managers, particularly those with more of a task-focused personality type. Small talk and finding out about people’s lives outside work can feel frivolous and/or uncomfortable for some managers, however the more these kinds of conversations are the norm, the easier it is to detect and address stress-related problems in the team. If discussions with each person about their wellbeing take place regularly, it is a much smaller step to discuss problems an individual is facing than if conversations have only ever taken place around work related issues.4. Knowing when to seek further support and where to find it
Recognising when to seek further support is a sign of strength, and adds credibility to a manager’s role. Sometimes an individual may not want or be able to articulate to their line manager what the issues are that are triggering the stress; or they may be in a situation where first and foremost they need to be removed from the environment that is contributing to their stress and have some support to help them to recover.
The line manager’s role here is often more about signposting where the individual can find this support, or even in absenting themselves from the process and creating an environment where individuals know they can seek support confidentially and without comeback in terms of how they are viewed professionally.
Examples of further support available include using the organisation’s EAP company, access to occupational health counsellors, seeking support from HR, talking to another colleague or the manager of a different team.
Longer term support can also include access to coaching and training to develop coping techniques and build resilience and professional development in skills that will improve performance and efficiency.
HR have a key role in ensuring that appropriate options are available and that managers and employees are aware of them.
Jane is a qualified coach and NLP practitioner with a diploma in stress management. Her professional background includes leading teams delivering humanitarian aid in Africa and Asia, advising the corporate sector on social investment and providing leadership development coaching and training to organisations in the public, not for profit and corporate sectors. Following major back surgery and a period of sickness absence, she set up Back on Track Coaching
and provides coaching and training support to individuals and employers to promote wellbeing and performance in the workplace.