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Feeling stressed out at work? According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), your manager is to blame.

NICE today issued new guidance outlining what employers must do to help reduce the enormous cost that stress, anxiety and depression has on businesses in the UK. The ensuing debate has seen the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) criticise the NICE’s involvement, arguing that the issue of workplace stress is for businesses themselves to handle.

While the FSB is correct in re-establishing that businesses need to be more switched on to the problem of workplace stress, CMI would argue that the onus falls on individual managers within those organisations to make sure that enough is done to prevent the teams and colleagues suffering from stress.

Yes, a robust organisational policy on stress is a good place to start, as is making employees aware of their rights on working conditions (both NICE recommendations). But ultimately, managers need to be aware of what pressures their staff face day to day and be able to offer unconditional support when needed. After all, a workplace policy on stress is no good to anyone if you are too afraid to mention that you feel strung out in the first place.

There’s no doubt that the turbulent economic times we’ve been experiencing have made things a lot tougher for everyone, and employees are bound to be feeling more stressed out as a result of the increased pressure. Indeed, CMI’s latest Economic Outlook paints a bleak picture of current workplace conditions with morale worse than earlier this year in 65 per cent of organisations and the vast majority of UK managers (82 per cent) feeling negative effects of the recession.

Even before the current recession, UK working hours were among the longest hours in Europe. Research reveals that one in five of us work more than 14 extra hours per week while 53 per cent say they feel "overloaded" with work. We’re also very bad at taking lunch breaks. Working long hours with inadequate breaks is proven to negatively affect productivity levels, taking its toll on motivation, and ultimately workplace wellbeing which in turn is directly linked to stress and anxiety.

Unfortunately, too many managers in the UK have a policy of "tough love" when it comes to the health of the workforce. CMI’s latest Quality of Working Life report shows that one in three workers don’t report things like stress or illness, fearing that their bosses will be unsympathetic. Where sympathy isn’t forthcoming, absence levels tend to be higher than average. In some cases, this can be by as much as five extra days per person, per annum.

It’s not that we’re advocating managers go all "soft", it’s simply a case of taking a sensible line. Managers need to engender a culture of openness and trust where common sense prevails. Employees should, for example, recognise that if one person is ill and comes into work there’s more chance that we’ll all become ill and productivity and service levels will suffer.

So how to bring about this culture of openness and trust? And why don’t we have one already?

The predominant management styles in the UK are bureaucratic (in 40 per cent of organisations), reactive (37 per cent) and authoritarian (30 per cent). Unsurprisingly, none of these styles are particularly conducive to trusting, open manager-staff relationships. However, where management style is ‘innovative’, absence levels drop well below average proving that a change in management style can have a profound impact.

At the most simplistic level, managers across all sectors and at all levels need to think about the three ‘Ts’ – talk, trust and thanks. An open, trust culture comes about where managers encourage colleagues to voice opinions, concerns and ideas. Employees should also be given autonomy – both manager and their staff’s stress levels will be reduced where people are trusted to do the work assigned to them, without excessive monitoring. Finally, while thanks and praise should play a big part in annual events such as the Christmas party and appraisals, these should also feature regularly in day to day office dialogue. Regular acknowledgment of hard work and achievement is top on the list of wants for 67per cent of employees.

Flexible working, encouraging staff to take adequate breaks, and reinforcing the message that it never pays to work when you are sick, will also help a great deal.

Ultimately, when it comes to workplace stress, it is managers, not businesses, that need to be accountable for the methods used to improve staff wellbeing. Poor mental health and anxiety costs the British economy more than £24billion per year including 14 million lost work days, proving that, as with so many things, prevention is far better, and cheaper, than cure.

While managers may or may not be the root cause of workplace stress, they can most certainly play a key role in the solution. Wellbeing and reducing workplace stress should be a significant priority for all managers. How much more convincing do we need?

Ruth Spellman OBE, is chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute
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