The following article by Brisbane Psychologist Sharon Hulin is designed to help leaders and managers with how to identify, and also strategies for managing stress in the workplace.
Most of us are probably familiar with the signs of stress in ourselves and our loved ones, such as:
- Uncharacteristic behavior
- Increased mistakes
- Reduced eye contact
- Rapid or slow speech
- Critical and cynical
- Frequent medical visits for minor health complaints
- Disturbed sleep
- Tension and muscle aches
- Increased blood pressure
- Upset stomach • Headaches
- Fast and shallow breathing
- Cognitive: Reduced concentration/forgetfulness
- Cognitive: Diminished decision-making
Signs of Organisational Stress
But what are the indicators of stress in organisations?
Do any of the following seem familiar …
Defensive – Fight Reactions:
- People spend time during group discussion on retaliation
- Mistakes are used to punish people
- Unhealthy competition
- Psychological games and ‘politicking’
- High level of aggressive behavior
Withdrawal – Flight Reactions:
- Few people contribute to discussions
- Group members work in isolation, not as a group
- No sharing of common problems
- No progress review or attention given to how the group is working
- High level of non-assertion, leaving the leader to make decisions
- Stress-related compensation claims
- Other compensation claims
- High sick leave
- Absenteeism/unplanned leave
- Increase in customer service complaints
- Grievances/industrial action
- Sabotage and employee theft
- Staff turnover
- Low level of interpersonal contact
- Conflict and negative interactions
- Low level of effort
Strategies for Managing Stress in the Workplace: Tips for Leaders
Just being able to identify organisational stress is the only first step. Here are some practical ideas to help with managing stress in the workplace.
Put STRESS CONTAINMENT on the agenda:
- Encourage open discussions on stress
- Foster a problem-solving attitude
- Talk about stress, familiar language, address in meetings
- Be pro-active – manage stress early, make it normal practice
- Assess risks and plan to manage them
Foster a supportive and effective team:
- Approachability, trust and interest in your relationships
- Communicate, listen well and give clear messages
- Give and receive feedback openly (positive and negative)
- Peer support, team building, shared projects, social and down time
- Develop staff’s skills and knowledge via training, education, mentoring, supervision and regular feedback
Model Positive Stress Management:
- Manage your time and work-life priorities
- Stay calm yet real with stress/emotion
- Be flexible – set realistic expectations, adapt to changing needs of the team/individuals/yourself
- Show that relaxation, fun and rest are important (take holidays, lunch breaks and watch your overtime etc)
Encourage a fresh, revitalized and fun team:
- Appropriate fun at work = productivity + job satisfaction
- Promote positive choices such as exercise, relaxation, healthy eating, positive thinking
- Reflect and plan as a team/individual and set visions and goals
- Look for novel ideas to keep interest (morning teas, yoga, music, pictures, and themes)
- Energise through gentle stretching, brief walk/chat
Seek support, advice and debriefing:
- Talking to ‘‘off-load’’ stress and find solutions
- Seeking support/guidance as an important tool for professional development
- HR, colleagues, EAP for counselling, Manager Support Services, other personal/professional supports.
- Consider coaching, mentoring and training opportunities
Self-Help Reference Resources
Encourage the office staff to build up a resource kit of resources which deal with stress / self-management / positive self-management skills / self- esteem etc and then encourage staff to use these materials.
Reading up on stress information yourself can prepare you for stressful times.
Talking about stress management
In conjunction with the above, initiate discussions with staff regarding their thoughts on ways to eliminate / reduce stress in their work place. Remember to emphasise that the list must be practical and achievable. Focus on what can be changed and start with small changes.
During busy periods it is essential that staff have their morning and afternoon tea breaks and preferably not at their desks. It is too easy for some staff to keep working through breaks. Productivity does not necessarily increase but stress levels definitely do because of this type of ‘sacrifice’.
Encourage staff to take a few minutes every hour or so to stand up and do a few stretching exercises. They may resist, but as a supervisor it is advantageous to encourage them to do so.
Increasing blood flow to the brain and other extremities does wonders for a tired, cramped body.
A few minutes of stretching exercise can also help prevent an aching back, neck, shoulders and general tension.
Handling the instant stress reaction
The instant stress reaction is usually caused by a difficult / angry client. Encourage the staff member to go for a quick walk (remember, exercise reduces stress!), or stop and have a glass of water or a cup of tea.
Taking slow deep breaths for 1 – 2 minutes can also greatly relax the body.
What is stressful for one, is not for another
As a supervisor, it is important to remember this.
Whilst some members of the team may be coping with work pressure, others may not.
Encourage staff to seek support
If a staff member is obviously distressed about a work related or personal matter, encourage them to seek assistance from the staff counselor or EAP or a referral from their GP, with a Mental Health Care Plan.
Rehabilitation case manager
If the person has taken time off work and has cited the reason as ‘‘work related stress” advise the RCM/HR.
He / she can discuss the possibility of a compensation claim.
Some employees feel they should be ‘superwoman’ or ‘superman’’ and complete their entire workload at once, regardless of the amount, the complexity or the difficulties presented by excessive change or systems faults.
- Let staff know that you appreciate their work, efforts and ideas. Enforce to your team that a good days work is what is expected -not a ‘superhuman ‘or debilitating effort. If staff do not look after themselves, the end result is usually stress or illness (flu, migraine, sinus etc) not to mention the unseen cost to families / relationships.
- Make sure staff know that if there are excessive workloads to discuss this with MANAGEMENT who will manage the problems – even if this means making a decision to let some work wait until a quieter time or priorities tasks.
- Remember that it is not possible to reward and praise your team too much. “Lack of support” from supervisors / section managers is often quoted in stress compensation claims and is related to these issues.
- Take time out to celebrate your achievements (a morning tea / drinks after work, dinner or whatever).
- Focus on how much the team has achieved, rather than what has not been achieved.
Staff moves / higher duties
Change (even positive change) can create stress, so provide as much lead-time as possible. Keep your staff informed on what’s happening to them. Explain why someone isn’t going to get higher duties if there is a vacancy.
People can become confused if they are not consulted about issues that directly concern them. Communication is the key.
Some employees may feel that their staff is inadequate if they have not received sufficient training. There are always positive results when staff have pride in their work and feel that they have a situation under control. Having to ask someone questions all the time can be demoralising.
Don’t put training needs off because the office is too busy – it will always seem too busy and by postponing training now, all you are doing is creating tomorrow’s problems. (Lack of suitable / sufficient training is often quoted in stress compensation claims).
Be sure that staff are certain about what your expectations are. Don’t assume that things are understood. Paraphrase. Be available to your staff. When you are talking to a staff member give them 100% of your attention. If you appear to be distracted, only half listening, or on the move, staff will feel that you are “too busy” and will be reluctant to discuss issues with you in the future.
Encourage staff to make decisions
Sometimes they may make the wrong decisions but if people are encouraged to solve their own problems they will feel in control and this will help to reduce stress in the workplace.
Co-operation not competition
A healthy work environment encourages a co-operative atmosphere rather than a competitive one. To have staff working together rather than against each other is a big stress buster. Encouraging a sense of appropriate fun in teams can also greatly improve morale and reduce stress.
Encourage movement amongst staff. Staying in the same office space year after year is counter-productive. Change can break the monotony and boredom as well as stimulate new ideas. Even a different client population can help reduce a buildup of stress or ‘‘burn-out’’ Conversely it is not a good idea to move someone to a new area if they are obviously suffering from stress or if they express a desire not to be moved. This can be the straw that “breaks the camel’s’ back” and result in a compensation claim.
Look after yourself
Self-care – As a supervisor you need to practice what you preach for good personal stress management and to model appropriate stress management. Talk with peers and access information and support when you feel you need it.
Vital Role of Manager/Supervisor
Management style and manager interpersonal skills are crucial factors that exert a significant mediating influence over employee stress outcomes.
- Model effective management of stress
- Provide supportive and strong leadership with an emphasis on participative management rather than autocratic management
- Develop and maintain good team morale which serves to buffer stress
- Be seen as acknowledging and addressing major organisational issues which generate stress
- Encourage staff members to accept responsibility for their own levels of stress whilst ensuring that the work environment is supportive
How do you know when a Staff Member is Experiencing Significant Stress?
- The staff member directly reports experiencing stress
- Others identify a particular staff member as experiencing difficulties
- Obvious signs of distress or other behaviour suggesting stress (see common signs of stress above)
- Changes in work performance, ie erratic, increased errors, non-compliance with deadlines and organisational policies
- Change in pattern of attendance and frequent unplanned absences
- Frequent medical appointments for minor health complaints
- Lodgment of compensation claims for stress
Skills for Helping Others Manage Stress
Helping skills are part of your ordinary repertoire of behaviour. In helping interviews some behaviour are used more often than in your usual discussions with others; similarly other behaviour need to be kept to a minimum.
Setting your Team up for Success
You will be more successful in encouraging the other person to sort out their difficulties and resolving issues if you:
- Keep an open mind
- Actively listen to them
- Accept the other person without being critical
- Ask open questions
- Pay attention to feelings
- Want to understand the other person’s view
- Want to act co-operatively with the other person
You will be less helpful in interviewing staff with stress-related difficulties if you:
- Make statements about your own beliefs or opinions
- Are critical of the person interviewed
- Concentrate on ensuring that the person is acceptable to others
- Make evaluations and judgments
- Attach importance only to the external logic of the situation
- Take unilateral action without consulting the other person
- Do most of the talking
Strong emotions can escalate conflict, interfere with constructive attempts to resolve difficulties, and prevent people from engaging in collaborative problem solving. Hence there is frequently a need to ‘defuse’ emotions in order to get to the point where workable strategies and solutions can be negotiated.
Anger and Aggression:
- Wait for the person to run out of steam.
- Try not to react in kind; ie don’t bite back or become defensive or critical
- Do not argue with them or use fighting words such as “Take a look at yourself you idiot”; instead use words like “I’m interested in hearing why you think”
- Adopt a positive, calm and firm tone. Watch your non-verbal behaviour to ensure that it is congruent with self-confidence
- Maintain eye contact and ensure that you are positioned at eye level with the aggressor. This will enable you to look more in control and convey a sense that you mean what you say
- Do not laugh inappropriately or smile.
- Try not to be judgmental or dismissive
- Reframe what they say making it more acceptable and focusing only on the rational component and repeating this back to the aggressor. Conclude your summary of their position by reasserting/restating your position.
- Don’t take it personally. Hostile or aggressive types are experienced at making the receiver feel that they are personally to blame for the situation
- Continually try to calm yourself down and use rational self-talk
- Only respond to the facts of the situation rather than to emotional argument
- Do not block complaints. If the Aggressor feels they have a valid complaint, then inform them of the appropriate channels available for them to pursue their concerns
- Do not over-respond or over-compensate to signs of distress
- Do not be dismissive
- Try to remain calm and steady
- Do not be afraid to allow the person some time to express their distress
- Use silence and minimal encouraging gestures to allow the person time to vent
- Wait until the emotion subsides before attempting to fully engage the person in a discussion
- Use reflective listening skills to demonstrate understanding and acknowledgment of concerns, but then bring the person back to the facts and the consequences
- After allowing some time to express emotions, encourage the person to focus on more positive aspects of the situation
Agitation and Anxiety:
- Remain calm and steady
- Encourage the person to focus on the facts of the situation and not so much on future consequences and negative possibilities
- Reassure the person that the issues can be addressed and solutions can be found
- Be clear and specific in your statements; this will help to minimise the scope for misinterpretation
- If the agitation does not subside, suggest pausing, eg for a cup of tea, or to attend to some other task to assist in calming down before proceeding
Employee Assistance Program
It may be appropriate to refer the employee to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), like the one provided by M1 Psychology. If this is the case, here are some guidelines for manages and supervisors.
- Briefly introduce the discussion, saying something positive about the person
- Tell the person why you want to speak with him/her and what you hope to achieve, ie you have noticed some changes in them lately and are concerned about him/her
- Indicate you want to see if you can assist in some way
- Assure the person that the discussion is confidential
- Communicate your observations of the signs that raised your concern; give specific examples of actual behaviour. Indicate you note a change from the way you know the person normally performs, behaves or relates
- If the person acknowledges the signs, test their desire to help or address the underlying issues. Remember to use open-ended questions so that the person does most of the talking – What? How?
- Offer your assistance as appropriate and recommend the EAP as a way of receiving professional assistance to address issues or begin to manage the situation. Note that attendance at the EAP is voluntary. The suggestion may take the angle of helping the person “get back on track”, “pick up their performance”, or “regain their edge”
- Acknowledge that the reason you are recommending the service is your concern for the person’s wellbeing. Indicate that you would view positively his/her using the service
- You should indicate what the counselling process will involve.
Reactions to this suggestion may include:
- Walk Out
Factors, which are more likely to result in a positive reaction, are:
- Earlier parts of discussion are handled sensitively
- Discussion with the person at this point is not too rushed
- The person perceives you are genuine in trying to help him/her
- The person is already aware of the service
If you are unsure about how to approach this discussion, contact the M1 Psychology Intake team for help.
If the person resists the suggestion, try to engage the person in conversation or discussion to understand their resistance. For example, is their misunderstanding about what counselling is about, who goes, if there is confidentiality, whether it is a threat to their job, etc? You may need to provide information to reiterate.
Remind the person that you merely made a suggestion out of concern for their wellbeing and they are not obliged to act on that suggestion.
Emphasise you are available to discuss the issue again.
Making the referral:
- If the person does indicate an interest in the service, offer to arrange the appointment for them
- Some people may accept this offer. It is often the situation that people suffering from stress have trouble making decisions. Some people may be relieved that someone else has offered to make the appointment for them. Others may wish to think about the suggestion. In this situation the person may wish to discuss it with their partner or a close friend. If this is the case, request that the person advise you of their decision to take up the counselling or otherwise when it is made.
- To arrange a referral, follow your organisation’s agreed procedure; for advice on referral contact your HR department, or Employee Assistance Program representatives.
Author: Sharon Hulin, BA (Double Hons), MA (Psych), MaPPi, ANZMH.
Sharon Hulin is a Brisbane Psychologist with a passion for supporting individuals with understanding and managing stress. With a solid grounding in academic training and scientifically researched best practice models of care, and many years of experience, Sharon provides support and guidance to help you clarify, heal, understand and integrate.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129.