MANAGING TEAM STRESS BASICS
The impact of stress in the workplace is well known, and in an increasingly complex market and society pressure to varying degrees is experienced across all levels of an organisation, no matter the occupation, purpose, or marketplace. The consequences of high workplace stress include poor morale, reduced performance, resistance to change and increased conflict. Longitudinal research has identified two factors, in particular, that contribute to a higher risk of experiencing workplace stress – complexity of role and responsibilities, and time pressure to achieve and perform. It is the obligation of all employers, and by default all managers as agents of their employer, to take reasonable steps to reduce workplace stress and manage it as effectively as possible.
This does not mean stress must be removed (not that it's possible to do that anyway) but that reasonable steps must be made. Managing stress is, at the end of the day, a partnership between the employer and the employee and both have responsibilities. Health and safety legislation highlights, among other things, the personal responsibility of a manager to actively demonstrate their efforts to manage the occupational health of those they are responsible for on premise, to be pro-active, and to take responsibility for team and broader workplace culture. In practice this means that individual managers can be held accountable and raises significant implications for occupational health practice and responsibility. There are a number of simple and effective points to consider when looking at a program that improves managers’ stress reduction capability, and in turn reduce employer liability and promote employee performance, well-being and overall team adaptability.
1. Create a supportive culture Workplace cultures that deny stress is a problem tend to result in extreme reactions when stress does occur. A supportive culture exists when people feel they can talk about stress openly and without impact on their reputation and credibility, and where asking for help is seen as a sign of wisdom not weakness. A supportive culture is a vehicle for discussion and ideas, identification of opportunity, creative thinking and is a sign of resilience.
2. Appreciate people’s differences Everyone is different — whether by personality, background, skills, or outlook. One person’s stress is another person’s welcomed challenge. Ensure the right people are selected for the stressors most likely to be encountered on the job, that each individual is aware of their own warning signs and trigger points, and measures are put in place to enable effective reflection, discussion, and self-management.
3. Develop recognition and awareness of personal responsibility When under stress people react in both different and similar ways. There are various behavioural signs, physical symptoms, and emotional reactions that may indicate unusually high stress levels. It’s also a matter of people understanding what is within their control and what they take responsibility for, and outside of that possibly need help with. Get to know each person’s personality, temperament, preferential style and key experiences and what their individual signs. Encourage and provide systems and mechanisms that allow people to self-manage effectively while balancing performance responsibilities. In other words, instead of reinforcing the responsibilities we all have to manage ourselves proactively companies need to have policies and practices in place that demonstrates support for this.
4. Resolve issues as they arise Try not to let things fester. Focus on early identification and early action. Value the time it takes to discuss, analyse and manage issues. If we don’t those issues will hang around and re-surface later with greater history than we may be able to manage effectively. An earlier awkward conversation is much better than a critical hostile one much later.
5. Build the team Good workplace relationships are a very important buffer to serious stress occurring. Team building that increases knowledge of interpersonal differences, conflict resolution and problem solving skills, appreciation and recognition of individual talents, and the flow of information across team members can be very effective to counter stress. Good consistent communication, sharing, and development of reduced defensiveness (i.e. it’s not about me it’s about the work we are all involved in and I am part of) that is inclusive and involves all team members as best as possible helps a team set, monitor, discuss, and maintain their own standards and expectations alongside some humour.
6. Heighten opportunities for personal control over ones work There is a large body of research showing that control over how a heavy workload is managed is one of the most effective ways to manage stress at work. Strategies may include flexible work hours, working from home, clarifying priorities, use of innovation, and improved devolution of decision making. This doesn’t mean the same as reducing workload, but clarifying what’s negotiable and non-negotiable, and where the areas of most effective personal practice and performance may lie on a day to day and week to week basis.
7. Remember everyone Include part-timers, volunteers, and remote workers in all initiatives alongside full time employees whenever possible in communications and gatherings. If it’s not possible to include everyone then ensure people are not forgotten and included and listened to in other ways.
8. Plan for contingencies If the worst case happens what will you do? Get ideas from the team, or at least key members of the team where possible critical incidents may apply that affect outcomes. Options should be available in a workplace stress policy, and include employee assistance, peer support, medical advice, and stress management interventions.