Building Team Resilience Long-Term
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, unreasonable resistance/insecurity when experiencing major change, increased low-level conflict, and poorer personal health outcomes. 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. For many jobs these factors are a necessary requirement of a role, but how they are managed is the key. 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. Commensurate with those obligations are the positive benefits of effectively managing expected and unexpected work stress to reduce long-term harm.
This does not mean stress must be removed 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, wellbeing 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. Similarly a culture that has a habit of being dismissive and demeaning of those feeling vulnerable or struggling can generate an obstacle to effective request and delivery of genuine and valuable support. 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. Stress, after all, is not an either or. We are under stress all the time – that’s part of life. But occasionally it can rise above our ability to manage it the way we should be or need to, and how we manage it and the decisions we make around it are what’s important.
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 as much as possible to not let a matter fester, especially when its impact on an individual or a group is apparent. One of the universal truths around managing stress in all its forms is earlier conversations about it. 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 often 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 or highly resistant one much later.
5. Develop the team by design not by accident
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. Building the team skills in these areas develops resilience and, operationally, the ability of a team to adapt and bounce back or evolve over time to new circumstances and expectations.
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.
9. Constructive feedback
Ensure feedback provided is two way and focuses on being constructive, relevant, specific, helpful and forward thinking (rather than overly dwelling on the past). Feedback is critical to clarify, explain, discuss and expand understanding of intent and impact. Lack of feedback or poor feedback is often cited as a key cause for stress that is avoidable, and impacts understanding of expectations and early resolution of issues when they are relatively minor. The keys for constructive feedback? Timely, relevant to the objectives of the role, non-personalised, enables opportunity for discussion and explanation, honest, specific, and focuses on opportunities for growth and development.
10. Respite planning
Pay attention to rest and recovery. Plan ahead for work load and organisation of work demand and timelines, value time out, celebrate success and what it means to an individual and the team as a whole, and enhance autonomy when possible and necessary for individuals to manage their choices around individualised moments of rest and respite from major critical events and ongoing unusually high demand that can be unexpectedly fatiguing.