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Dealing with particular stress-related issues

Each situation of stress in the workplace will have unique aspects. Even when a group of staff are facing the same stress risk factors, the best outcomes occur when effort is made to configure solutions to the individual's circumstances.

If it is a group issue should I have a group conversation?

If the stress involves a group of staff, then it is usually a case of mixing and matching: some staff members should be spoken to individually, all staff should be given the option of initiating a discussion with you and the group should be given an opportunity to raise issues as a group.

Return from an extended absence(over two weeks): is there anything I should do differently if the person has been away from work for an extended period?

Firstly welcome the staff member back, confirm their contribution was missed and provide an update about developments that have occurred in their absence.

Secondly, as a separate exercise, explore with them their reasons for non-attendance. If you already know that the period off work was due to stress, review with the staff member the factors they believe are responsible for the stress. This may change the focus and content of the conversation but does not remove the necessity to have the conversation with the staff member.

Advice on managing individual cases If the staff member is away from work


Do nots

Prompt, well thought action is necessary when you believe there is a stress problem

Do not delay unless you have concrete reasons to believe the matter will resolve itself

Use your judgement about the best approach based upon your knowledge of the person

Do not hesitate to seek advice from Human Resources Services (Client Partner), but it is your problem to resolve

Consider whether you are part of the perceived problem. If so, involve a credible third party

Do not use your involvement as an excuse for lack of action

Start low key, casually and at an informal level but have your facts marshalled. Have specific examples where the person's performance has deteriorated or where it is affecting the performance of others

Do not make a fuss or back the person into a corner. Do not operate on a wing and a prayer. If you need to discuss approaches or the conversation, consider getting assistance through My Coach for People Leaders

If the person's problem is not affecting their performance or that of others be prepared to back off and respect their privacy. Even when the issue is work-related you must be sensitive to privacy issues.

Do not use respect for privacy as an excuse for inaction. Offer assistance. If it is refused, leave the offer open whilst continuing to monitor work performance and impact.

If a discussion starts to get heated or personal, break it off. Get a third party (HR Partner) involved to protect both yours and the other person's integrity

Do not get into arguments. If the matter needs to be pushed and the person concerned is not responding well, break off and make arrangements for a more formal meeting

Do be prepared to act as a sounding board and assist the other person to come to a personally acceptable decision. Facilitate the persons self-development and awareness

Do not act as a judge, confessor or parent. If this is what the person wants, refer them to professional assistance (Employee Assistance Program). Avoid seeming indifferent but do not become emotionally involved

Do accept that some problems are out of your league. If the matter cannot be resolved locally, identify the best course of action and best forum for its resolution

Do not become involved over your head. Do not hesitate to seek outside professional assistance or seek advice from more senior management or your Client Partner.

While taking a sincere interest in the personal wellbeing of your staff, remember your prime responsibility as a manager is with the person's performance.

Do not become enmeshed in personal disputes, keep to the facts about the person's performance. Do not speculate or jump to conclusions. Do not apply your own personal values or beliefs in evaluating the performance of staff

Respect confidences and the person's privacy.

Avoid moral dilemmas, do not say or do anything that will compromise your integrity or that of the University's.

Do document any decisions or commitments about future performance or behaviour. Show the document to the person concerned and get their agreement. Do follow-up any commitments.

Do not leave this more than 1-2 days, as things can change or deteriorate rapidly.

What should I do if the person is away from work?

The normal practice is to keep in contact with staff members that are on unplanned absences. If you believe this is problematical or you have been asked by the person not to contact them, discuss this with your Human Resources Partner.

If possible, you should arrange a face-to-face meeting with staff member at a neutral location preferably, but if necessary at their home. If the meeting is at the staff member's home, try to have a colleague accompany you with the staff member's permission. Try to make the focus of the discussion 'Are you okay?' rather than 'When are you returning to work?'

Advice on managing individual cases if the staff member is away from work


Do nots

Follow up personally any absence from work over 3 days. This can be in the form of a phone call:

  • How are you?
  • Is there anything we can do?
  • Do this even though the person may have "rung in"

Do not leave this to others unless there is a concrete reason to do so: the personal touch can be critical.

Do not go overboard especially if there was a poor relationship initially.

If it is a prolonged absence (over 2 weeks) maintain regular contact.

If appropriate arrange a personal visit perhaps with a co-worker. If appropriate arrange flowers, get well card, etc.

Do not forget about the person. Do not start to believe that it is "for the best" that the person is away.

After any prolonged absence (over 1 month) arrange a suitable return to work program.

If the absence involves sickness or injury, consider limited hours and duties. Even if it is a holiday, people take time to get back into the swing of things.

Do not give a returning worker a month's backlog to catch up with in the next week, as well as their normal job.

If the person's absence is welcomed by you or other employees, then you have a major problem. Similarly, if you believe there is no good reason for the absence, do something about it.

Do not ignore difficult situations: they inevitably get worse. Do not be reluctant to start the formal disciplinary/warning system if justified

What about cross-campus management and stress?

A particular issue at Deakin is "distance management" where particularly direct line managers are not on the same campus as a portion of their staff. This can lead to two stress issues – staff feeling alienated from their manager (in the worst cases, "us" versus "them"), and the manager not being close enough to the workplace to feel the mood of local staff. This issue can be addressed in a number of ways that are dependent upon the situation:

  • The use of local team leaders or campus representatives.
  • Regular attendance, and more importantly, availability on the campus. Availability means leaving time outside the business schedule to catch up with people and socialise. This needs to be tempered with the stress of constant travel and the associated loss of time involved.
  • The clustering when feasible of functions on a campus to warrant the appointment of a team leader
  • The use of phone and to a lesser effect e-mail to keep in contact. The effectiveness of phone communications is dependant on the quality of the existing relationships. This in turn makes the induction process when these relationships are built critical.
  • Where staff are having problems, then the amount of face-to-face contact needs to increase.
  • Clear job and role expectations and objectives that are well understood by both you as the manager and the staff involved.

What should I do if the relationship with the person is strained?

The relationship between the injured worker and the manager is important. You should seek advice from your Client Partner. Some ways to mend or maintain that relationship may include:

  • scheduling regular conversations to check on the progress of the injured worker and to give them an opportunity to raise any concerns before problems develop further
  • nominating an alternative support or contact
  • flexibly providing alternative duties that will allow a gradual restoration of the relationship
  • using other agreed strategies that are in place to reduce barriers to return to work, such as mediation and other dispute resolution procedures.

The staff member is easily distressed: how can I coach them or talk about work?

There are some general principles that can be used:

  • Start with the person's strengths or successes
  • Be clear about concerns and expectations
  • Offer help
  • Collaborate on goals
  • Follow up
  • Agree on next steps

This is discussed in more detail in Coaching Distressed Staff. If you need to discuss approaches or the conversation, consider getting assistance through My Coach for People Leaders

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