Leaders and managers can all play their part in minimising the impact of stress in the workplace. Teaching them how to spot the difference between a healthy level of stress and one that could damage an individual’s mental health is key.
Leading Results’ Anita Douglas highlights some areas for managers to look for.
As a society, the word ‘stress’ is commonly banded about and, to some extent, is just accepted as being part and parcel of life.
However, stress can interfere with productivity and performance as well as physical, mental and emotional health, which can all impact on a business in a big way.
In 2016, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)’s Absence Management Survey found that after minor illnesses such as colds, stomach upsets and headaches, stress was the second most common cause of absence from work with 47% of all absences being stress-related.
Anita Douglas said the CIPD survey gives a clear insight into impact of stress on a workplace.
“It estimates that absence from work costs a business an average of £660 per person, per year,” Anita added. “So, if you take all of the absences in a business, arguably half of those could be down to stress-related issues and then you multiply that by the cost – that’s a big cost to organisations.”
So, what can be done about it?
“It’s crucial that any manager, employer or leader needs to make that distinction between what is ‘healthy stress’ and what is ‘unhealthy stress’,” says Anita.
“There is always stress in the workplace but some of that can actually be quite good. Sometimes that feeling of high pressure can be quite exciting because you are up against a deadline and you can actually perform better under those circumstances.
“That’s all very healthy – but it’s still stress. This is where organisations can really benefit from their managers and teams being trained on knowing the difference between the two.
“By developing leaders’ and teams’ resilience and mental toughness, companies can ensure that high pressure and healthy stress doesn’t transition into unhealthy stress. This can lead to a feeling of being so overwhelmed that an individual becomes ‘frozen’ by fear and ultimately has to take time off sick.
“As leaders in a business, we need to look at what point that stress becomes unhealthy and create the right environment that will allow us to recognise when an individual has peaked over the top of that very fine line.”
Anita firmly believes that psychology and how we are all ‘wired’ to think, react and adapt to certain situations is a major variable when it comes to workplace stress and an individual’s resilience to it.
Her beliefs are supported by academic research (Yerkes–Dodson law). The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal and there is a point when pressure and performance peak simultaneously before dropping down again, thus creating the Yerkes–Dodson curve.
The upward part of the curve can be thought of as the energising effect of arousal. The downward part is caused by negative effects or stress on cognitive processes like attention, memory and problem-solving.
“So, as a leader in a business, we have to create the environments that achieve that peak performance, where there is enough pressure but it just doesn’t go over the line,” explains Anita.
“It has to be part of the leader’s job to be aware of what conditions and environments can be created for healthy stress, and how to support and help people that may be feeling anxious or frustrated or have a conflict in priorities.”
Signs of unhealthy stress in a team could include changes in behaviour, a drop in performance or targets being met, and, of course, absence from work.
“Stress is unfortunately different for each individual and people respond very differently to it,” says Anita. “It’s not about giving managers a checklist to say if you spot these things, somebody is stressed. It’s about looking at an individual and seeing if there is a shift in their ordinary behaviour. If that is the case, that could be an indication that things are not well in them.
“When we go into an organisation with a view to tackling workplace stress, we don’t look for symptoms of stress and then cure it.
“We focus on building a stress-resilient culture and teach strategies that build personal resilience and mental toughness to enable individuals to deal with situations that could cause unhealthy stress.”
“With the rise of cloud computing and mobile technology, many leaders and employees are ‘always on’, which commentators believe could see an increase in stress in the workplace. Anita acknowledges this as having some validity but says it is by no means the whole story.
“I think regardless of the generation – Millennials, Generation X and everything in between – some people will handle this really well and some won’t,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter what generation you are, some individuals adapt well to change and there will be others who won’t. Some people are a slave to their mobile phone and laptop etc and pride themselves as always being accessible. They go on holiday and love the fact that they can still work.
“Personally, I love that I can go on holiday, hook up to the internet once a day and clear my emails, meaning that when I come back I haven’t got 5-600 emails clogging my Inbox. If it can be done in a way that’s healthy and helpful to the individual, then that’s OK.
“Other people will find it overwhelming, however, and if they get an email at 11pm, feel they ought to respond immediately and get anxious about what will happen if they don’t. All of those feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious could constitute stress, not because the situation has happened, but because of their response to it.
“The good news is that despite individual differences, everyone can learn how to manage situations so that they don’t result in unhealthy internally-focussed stress.”
Leading Results’ ‘Stress and Resilience In The Workplace’ course trains people to recognise that it is not the situation causing the stress but how we think about it and what we believe to be good and bad about that situation.
In other words, it is how we interpret and respond to that situation that causes the stress. It is at exactly this level, Leading Results’ interventions prove so powerful and give managers and their teams control over their responses. Once we shift their thinking, we shift their behaviours, and that’s the point where we can really drive optimum performance and productivity.
Find out more about how Leading Results’ Stress and Resilience in the Workplace course could help your company by getting in contact with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more: How to develop resilience in the workplace