Alan Bradshaw, a consultant in workplace mental health, offers tips on how managers can help ease their team's stress.
05 March 2018 | Alan Bradshaw
What causes stress?
Excessive workloads, lack of control and feeling unsupported increase the risk of stress, as do poor working relationships, a lack of clarity about roles and badly managed change. These often combine to produce a potent recipe for stress-related illness. Major life events outside work such as divorce, bereavement and caring responsibilities all make people more vulnerable to stress.
Managers can focus on three key areas when dealing with team members' stress: prevention, monitoring and responding.
Prevention is the proactive part of stress management. This involves working with your team to profile the pressures of the job. The team must be involved as the stress they experience is based on their perceptions. Once work pressures are profiled and prioritised, two types of stress management plans can be produced.
A preventive plan looks at averting stressful situations. This often involves communication with other teams and managers to find ways to tackle problems at source.
The second, an if-then plan, looks at what can be done to reduce stress, enable coping and support people if/when the situation occurs. If-then plans help because they reduce anxiety about stressful situations (even if the situation doesn't actually occur).
Monitoring is a continuing people management activity to establish any causes for concern about stress and mental health in individuals or the team. If you have a concern, you must act.
This usually involves having a conversation to paint a picture of how that person sees their situation and if there's anything you can do to help. One golden rule: don't jump to conclusions or make assumptions.
What might give you cause for concern? It's mainly down to what you can see and hear, such as sustained negative changes in people. Everyone can have a bad day, but chronic stress will usually manifest itself in one negative way or another. It might be a change in mood or behaviour, in the way someone interacts with others, or a drop in their work quality. Some negative changes are measurable, such as absence (frequency and length) or work performance, so you need to assess all available data to pick up on worrying trends.
Team meetings and one-to-ones are a great opportunity to identify stress problems before they become disasters. I recommend that managers should discuss 'work pressures' as an agenda item so it becomes normal to discuss demands and what can be done to address them.
This is the reactive part of stress management. It looks first at what can be done at work to support the person and minimise risks. It often involves developing plans to address causes of stress and making adjustments to make work more manageable.
It isn't just about pointing people at external support structures such as the employee assistance programme. Yes, access to confidential counselling can be helpful, but counselling is not a panacea and not everyone benefits from that kind of support.
Preventing, monitoring and responding - sounds simple, but it isn't. There are big challenges in today's workplace not addressed in this article, such as lack of time and remote working. And managers need training and tools to do this. But research shows the small investment in training will yield substantial returns.
Alan Bradshaw is a business psychologist and workplace mental health expert with a speciality in stress prevention and risk management