Under pressure

    Recent research says front-line social workers top the table of the most stressed professionals in the UK (news, page 8, 3 June).

    For a manager learning how to manage stress in staff before it becomes a serious problem is crucial but not easy. However, the Health and Safety Executive has identified seven main elements that strongly influence stress levels among staff.

    First, you need to get the workplace culture right. Your main focus is to get the job done and this requires a committed workforce. A workplace culture that values staff and ideally leads to individuals wanting to come to work must surely be your goal.

    So ask yourself – and your staff – is your workplace culture open so that staff feel able to offer opinions and ideas? What proportion of time is given over to praise a job well done and what proportion to criticism? What do you do to make staff feel valued and supported? Is this a good place to work? Are your staff happy? Ask them and then identify with them any changes needed to improve things.

    The demands placed on staff are often quoted as the main cause of work-related stress. Demands include being overloaded with work (particularly when covering vacancies); being expected to perform tasks the worker is not skilled in and has not been trained for; and being under-used where the work is under-stimulating, boring and even demeaning.

    Discuss demands with staff. Identify any fluctuations in workload you may be able to do something about. Identify how your environment could be improved – getting everyone involved in de-cluttering the office is simple and costs nothing.

    Control – the degree of say the worker has in how their work is carried out – can become an issue when your workers are given little or no say. No control leads to disgruntled, disaffected employees whereas opportunities for taking part in decision-making give greater feeling of self-worth and increased job satisfaction.

    The relationships we have with fellow workers can influence both work performance and home life. If your staff feel supported and encouraged your reward can be their loyalty and commitment.

    Unfortunately, however, in some organisations bullying is prevalent. It takes many forms and anyone can be a bully. It is unacceptable and must be dealt with. If you think it is happening keep notes, keep evidence, talk it over with others, use your agency policies (if you have them – if you don’t, get some) and involve the trade union. And be a role model for proper behaviour.

    If not managed adequately, change can create high levels of stress. You should inform your staff as soon as possible about any proposed changes that may affect them. Ask your staff to become involved by offering proposals and ideas about proposed changes; and keep people informed to avoid gossip-mongering.

    You can further reduce stress by ensuring the role of each staff member is clearly defined and understood. Personal development plans, supervision and team meetings can help by discussing work objectives, and organisation goals and priorities enabling individuals to identify how they fit into the scheme of things.

    Your support is crucial in enabling staff to feel comfortable and competent in the performance of their duties. Many managers, however, like to “lead from the front”: arriving early, leaving late, not taking all their annual leave, setting a macho culture where support is seen as a dirty word. But support is about helping staff achieve the right balance between work and home life; providing appropriate training; ensuring a comprehensive induction for new staff; and helping staff learn from mistakes.

    So, managing the above areas can help reduce the likelihood of stress occurring in your staff. However, one element remains – the negative attitude some managers have towards work-related stress, seeing it as self-inflicted and only affecting weaker types who use it as an excuse.

    As a manager, therefore, identify what your attitude is towards work-related stress and if you think stress is a sign of weakness only affecting a certain type, think again.

    Curriculum vitae   

    Name: Ray Braithwaite 

    Job: Freelance trainer 

    Qualifications: Certificate of Qualification in Social Work 

    Publications: Managing Aggression (Taylor Francis, 2001); Turning Down the Heat (Pavilion, 2003); Aggression at Work and How to Handle it – interactive CD-Rom self learning package (Utility Films, due out September 2004) 

    Last job: Intake and assessment team manager 

    First job: Trainee mental welfare officer   

    Top tips

    • The best managers have the best people management skills: accurate listening, constructive feedback, being available and approachable. 
    • Appoint anti-bullying officers, pay them an honorarium and send them on training courses. 
    • Low anxiety delivers high performance.   

    Rubbish tips

    • Stress doesn’t need managing. It improves performance.  
    • People who can’t cope with the job should resign.  
    • Tony Blair is a good manager – look at how he takes all the stress on himself.

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