Many CEOs see stress as an intractable problem which would cost too much to tackle properly - or alternatively something that only affects ‘whiners’ whom their organisations would be better off without. Employee assistance programmes, corporate gym memberships and flexible hours are seen as expensive, of dubious effectiveness, and in the worst case, as mollycoddling staff. Many organisations do the bare minimum to comply with legislation - and some get stung for heavy penalties as the law gradually tightens up.
Let's look at stress in a different way. Stress is a drain on your organisation's productivity, morale and commitment. When you remove the causes of stress in your organisation, not only will everyone feel better about coming to work, your bottom line will improve. And if you can get the answers right to these six simple common-sense questions, codes of practice and counselling programmes won't come into the equation. Are you interested yet?
Why The Questions Are In This Form
We could ask questions that look at the situation from the outside, like “Do my team members have what they need to do the job?" This detached, third-party viewpoint is the way that managers have traditionally looked at ‘people factors’ in the past. This won't get you the whole answer.
In order to understand the subjective experience of your people - which is what determines their morale, stress levels and performance - you have to put yourself in their shoes, or better still, ask them. This is why the questions are in the form they are. The information you need is in the answers you will get when your employees ask themselves these questions. You can get a lot of information just by putting yourself in the shoes of each of your team members - with their resources and attitudes - rather than assuming that they think in the same way you do.
1. Are my work patterns and environment healthy?
- Is the environment safe, clean, and easy on the eye?
- Is it well laid out, with the things you need easy to find and get to?
- Is it as quiet as it needs to be?
- Is there a ‘quiet room’ for thinking / relaxation?
- Can I take a break every hour and a half or so (more frequently if doing intense keyboard and screen work, or hard physical labour)?
-Are my de facto working hours reasonable (no more than 8 hours a day, except in cases of dire need)?
As a manager you need to set an example - you are the model for success, so if you don't take breaks and go home at a reasonable time, nor will your team members.
2. Do I have what I need to do the job?
- Do I have the equipment I need to do the job?
- Do I know what is expected of me?
- Do I have the skills and training to do the job?
- Does my job allow me to do what I am best at?
3. Do I know when I'm doing a good job?
Ask yourself ‘How do I know when I'm doing a good job?’ If the answer is, ‘I just know', you can feel happy doing your job without external feedback, and may even regard it as an insult to your competence. You'll still need some feedback as a ‘reality check’.
People who answer ‘The customer tells me’ or ‘The boss tells me’ (and you need people like this in, for example, a customer service role) will literally not know if they are doing well unless they get regular feedback. If all they get is a yearly appraisal, don't be surprised if they feel increasingly nervous as it approaches.
4. Do I feel my job is important?
People need meaning in their lives. If the job is meaningful to them, they will feel more motivated and more able to overcome setbacks and difficulties.
5. Am I recognised as an individual?
People also need to feel valued. If they feel they are just an interchangeable cog in the machine, their sense of self will be threatened. They will also feel nervous about being replaced or disposed of.
6. Am I learning and growing?
A standard concept in stress management is the ‘Human Performance Curve’ . The idea is that when you're under pressure, your performance rises to meet the challenge. Beyond a certain point, or if the pressure is sustained for too long, we get ‘burnout’ as the person becomes exhausted. But, if there is too little challenge, we get the mirror-image condition of ‘rust-out', which is equally stressful.
If they are not learning and growing, achievement-oriented people will begin to fret about their ‘competitors’ getting ahead. Rust-out is particularly a problem in organizations which punish mistakes rather than viewing them as opportunities for learning.
If someone is under-utilised, but fears to take the initiative because they are worried about doing something wrong, they are in a double-bind. After all, they are at work, so they are supposed to be working. This is when we get ‘presenteeism’ - being at work and appearing to be busy without actually doing anything.
If you and your team members could answer ‘Yes’ to each of these questions, any stress remaining in the workplace will either be a healthy response to immediate external challenges, spurring the organisation on to greater efforts, or will be the consequence of external factors in the individual's life such as family pressures.
A well-run, pleasant workplace in which individuals are valued and have the opportunity to learn and grow will aid recovery even from external stresses, rather than making them worse. Stress is antithetical both to individual well-being and organizational productivity. It makes sense to minimise it.
Andy Smith is an Emotional Intelligence consultant and NLP Trainer based in the UK. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org . His website, at http://www.practicaleq.com/products/ , contains many free articles and downloads. Sign up for Andy's “Practical EQ" newsletter by sending a blank email to: email@example.com