Stress the positive

Stress in the workplace is widely considered to be on the increase and social care workers are high on the list of those whose jobs make them prone to sickness and absenteeism because of stress. Managing well, and keeping well balanced as a person, is not easy in social care environments.

The day-to-day work of managing brings you into contact with the emotions, feelings and reactions of staff and service users to all kinds of life events. This is always demanding, challenging and often stressful. Dealing with unexpected events or crises is the norm.

Not all stress is bad. Some people experience stress positively. Some seem to cope well with even the most stressful jobs, such as air traffic control. Unacknowledged stress or stress which cannot be changed because the employee is in a position of weakness can, however, be very damaging. Negative stress results from a number of factors including employee vulnerability, job design, and team and organisational characteristics. Some of these factors are more amenable to management intervention than others.

But the quality of management may be the key factor for creating well-being or creating stress for others at work. For workers the manager can be the main source of pressure and stress. Trouble with “the boss” ranks high on lists of factors that trouble and upset people.

In particular, the amount of work or deadlines set can be a significant contribution to stress. If people are in control they cope better. Therefore your task is to devolve power as much as possible, support staff in taking control and help them recognise those events which are out of their control – encouraging them to focus on what they can do as opposed to drowning in everything which becomes embedded in the way they function. The individual switches from their usual functioning with occasional bouts of anxiety to a permanent state that can’t be changed.

Negative stress is essentially fear and anxiety, which in the long run can lead to a physiological and psychological state of mild to moderate anxiety. At this point performance will often begin to drop and the individual will become prone to ill-health. They may also “pass on” their anxiety to others creating the high anxiety team or organisation.

So, what are the steps that managers can take to minimise stress? A creative approach is to work towards building a positive culture and a sense of well-being at work. Organisations have legal responsibilities to protect the well-being of employees and they must also ensure that systems, structures and cultures all offer support to this end.

However, stress is best managed by tackling the sources of it. This is where the front-line manager has a key role. So start with yourself: be flexible, fair and be clear about expectations and support. Also encourage participation and create a sense of team. Individually, our management style needs to be:

– Delegatory but supportive, with the ability to take hard decisions.

– Transparent and honest.

– Calm, although this is not to say we can never express anger as managers – it may be best to express anger rather than bottle it up – but colleagues will need to be “debriefed” afterwards.

– Participative – shared ownership of decisions and risks, and supporting staff when things go wrong are essential.

– Strong enough to take on external pressures or troublesome individuals when necessary. Being lax on poor performers, increases rather than reduces stress.

Crucially, you also need to manage your own stress through establishing a healthy work-life balance, taking time out and keeping perspective. Remember, you do have lives outside of work. This will help you in turn to manage stress while leading by example.

Similarly, at organisational and team level, systems also have to work:

– The basics of good human resources and people management are essential tools for stress management, including objective setting, appraisal, personal development plans, business planning, good job design, and so on.

– All employers should have a mental health in the workplace policy which covers issues such as support, counselling, time out, return to work, alcohol and so on.

– Personal and organisational stress management should be a valid part of PDPs and training.

– Good communications reduce stress especially forums which involve senior management and staff having face-to-face open discussion.

– Set up stress indicators such as sickness absence and exit interviews, and use them.

Andrew McCulloch is chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation; Janet Seden is a lecturer, at the school of health and social welfare, The Open University

“When I was….

…managing a fairly senior and conscientious member of staff with a difficult brief, I realised that he was tending to see everything as a priority and had difficulty in deciding how to move certain projects on. However, he had many skills including thoroughness and inspiring loyalty. He was struggling and showing visible stress. We sat down and reviewed his objectives for the year and his current work programme. Some items were delayed or dropped. I took one over myself. And his remaining objectives were developed into work plans that could be more easily met. He said that after the meeting a huge weight had been lifted. He still had a big job but he felt it was now do-able. Stress levels in the whole team went down and performance went up.” (Andrew McCulloch)

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