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What can I do about workplace stress

How do I recognise stress in individuals?

Many of the outward signs of stress in individuals will frequently be noticeable to managers and colleagues. Look in particular for changes in a person's mood or behaviour, such as deteriorating relationships with colleagues, irritability, indecisiveness, absenteeism or reduced performance. See also Personal Signs of Stress.

Individual personality will influence how people respond to negative work experiences and work pressures. Some individuals have vulnerabilities or characteristics that contribute to the stress process (such as negative thinking patterns, the perception of being controlled by their circumstances, poor coping skills or past experience of stressors). In addition, there are staff who already have a psychological condition or develop one during their work life. These psychological conditions may be severe or virtually unrecognised, temporary, permanent or periodic.

The most successful interventions give priority to work-related (or organisational) measures that tackle the causes of workplace stress, in combination with worker-directed measures.

Remember to:

  • respect the confidentiality of your staff
  • tell your staff what you plan to do with any information you collect
  • involve them, as much as possible, in subsequent decisions
  • involve OHS representatives, if you have them, in your plans and decisions
  • if you employ five or more staff, record the important findings from your risk assessment, for example by writing them down
  • check from time to time that the situation hasn't changed.

Talking about stress to staff

If I do find out stress is, or could be, a problem, what can I do about it?

There's no single best way of tackling work-related stress. What you do will depend on your working practices and the causes of the problem. But only providing training or help (or both) for affected staff won't be enough - it won't tackle the source of the problem! The guide Management Competency Framework: Workplace Stress shows some of the pressures at work that might be relevant, along with some suggestions on how to deal with them.

Remember to:

  • involve your staff and their OHS representatives – they are certain to have good ideas you could use
  • follow up any changes you make to ensure that they're having the effect you intended
  • review what you've done when you make major changes in your workplace (such as organisational change, new equipment, work systems or processes) to make sure that stress hasn't increased
  • lead by example – as a manager, you can communicate powerful signals about the importance of managing stress and determine whether staff are willing to discuss or disclose issues leading to stress (before it becomes a critical issue).

But why would staff want to tell me about their stress?

You're right. Staff may be reluctant to admit they are feeling stressed by work. This is because being stressed can be seen as a sign of weakness. You can help by making it easier for your staff to discuss stress. Reassure them that the information they give you will be treated in confidence. Try to avoid judgemental language and constantly referring to stress. In discussions, use examples of observed behaviours, performance and output: do not use personal judgements of behaviours or possible motivations.

One of the things people can fear the most is the perception of personal criticism or implied personal failure. In exploring stress with an individual you should use non judgemental language, be objective not subjective and remember to approach that matter in a way that deals with the behaviour not the personality.

It is also essential that you use the principles of good communication – establish a rapport, actively listen, ask open ended exploratory questions and paraphrase to ensure understanding.

When to act

Faced with an awkward or difficult dilemma at work line managers react in various ways. If you are a line manager do you:

Option 1: AVOID the situation?      A common response that can work if you have decided it is not time to intervene - problems do sometimes go away or resolve themselves. But do keep an eye on things.
Option 2: HESITATE? Sometimes managers want to say something but lose their nerve and end up sending out coded messages in the form of jokes or quips which make things worse. For example, a flippant 'The part-timer is back' to a regular absentee.
Option 3: CONFRONT the issue? It's good to face up to a problem but try to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Focus on the issues involved rather than reacting to the personalities.
Option 4: FORCE matters to a head?     A manager might decide 'enough is enough' but be careful – issuing edicts and threatening sanctions can leave you with little room to manoeuvre.
Option 5: DISCUSS the issues fully and frankly?     Talking about problems in an open but honest way can be the hardest route to take but is often the most productive. You may have to use your disciplinary procedure to resolve a problem, but you may also be able to reach a consensus about the best way forward.

There are a number of reasons why managers may fail to deal adequately with staff who experience work-related stress. These include:

  • inadequate awareness of the issues
  • reluctance to concede that their management styles may be associated with ill health or stress in their employees
  • different staff may respond differently to the same working environment and management style. This may lead managers to conclude that a problem is the individual's – rather than accepting the need to acknowledge and respond to differences in their staff
  • managers may be reluctant to be educated in this area if they do not consider health and safety to be part of their responsibilities
  • managers may be concerned that raising stress with staff may create an issue where none existed
  • managers may be reluctant to 'intrude' into a worker's private life, although stresses arising outside of work can spill-over into the workplace.
  • managers may find it useful to get training or coaching in communication skills, in having difficult conversation or in basic mediation to manage conflict.

Managing with stressed staff

First, listen to them! If the stress is work-related:

  • try to address the source(s);
  • involve the staff member in decisions;
  • if necessary, encourage them to seek further help through their doctor or Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • if you are a senior manager and not the person's line manager, ensure that the line manager treats the staff member with understanding and maintains confidentiality.

Where you can't control the work-related sources of stress, it may be appropriate to move the staff member if you can. If a period of sick leave is recommended, keep in touch with the staff member and their doctor. This should be done personally if practical. However be sensitive where the staff member actually wants to be left alone. Remember that they may be able to return to work to do part of their job, work reduced hours or do a different job, before they are ready to return to their old one. Try to be flexible!

Don't be tempted to think that moving or having someone leave provides an easy way out! If you don't act reasonably, they could claim unfair dismissal or take related action. Before deciding on your course of action affecting an individual or group, think about the implications for the individual or group. For example will it put others under excessive stress, will the action isolate the individual or even be discriminatory.

As a manager it is you role to decide on the best action to meet the situation. Training is great if time management strategies are needed, increased supervisory assistance works well if the person is feeling out of their depth, counselling may help if there are a lot of personal problems – finding the best match between the underlying cause and the actions available is essential. At this stage you may want to seek assistance from your Client Partner. You may also want to discuss your situation with Health, Wellbeing and Safety or the Diversity and Inclusion Unit.

Finally, bear in mind that if one of your staff members is suffering from work related stress, they may represent the tip of an iceberg. Find out whether others are also experiencing stress at work.

Stress management training

Stress management training comes in various forms. It usually teaches people to cope better with the pressures they may come across. Because it focuses on the individual, it tends not to tackle the causes of stress at work. In most cases simply providing training will not resolve major or entrenched problems. However, it can be useful as part of a 'bigger plan' to tackle work-related stress. Stress management training can be organised with your Client Partner or Health, Wellbeing and Safety.

Employee Assistance Program

The counselling service provides counsellors to whom individuals can talk privately about their problems. The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can provide or access various services (eg counselling, performance management, financial advice, legal assistance).

Keep in mind that these services must protect the confidentiality of the individual, so any information they can give you may not help you tackle the causes of stress at work. On the other hand, like training, they can be useful as part of a 'bigger plan' to tackle work-related stress.

Manager coaching, training and other specific assistance

If you are responsible for managing staff there are a range of programs you can access. You can also seek operational and policy advice from your Client Partner. You can get assistance through My Coach for People Leaders.

In the longer term you can also improve your management skills through Staff Development programs. These programs can assist in a range of areas from carry out a PPR to improving your personal effectiveness. The programs are delivered in a variety of ways including online.

Do I need external consultants to help me deal with this? 

In most cases, complex and expensive risk management procedures aren't necessary to tackle stress. Ordinary good management and regard for people may well be as effective as a high profile approach. But if you're worried that stress is a major problem and you can't deal with it internally, you could think about getting strategic assistance from Human Resources through your Client Partner or Health, Wellbeing and Safety.

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