Continuing our series on the challenges currently facing social care managers, Anthony Douglas argues that team building is key to reducing the stress induced by constant change at work
Name: Anthony Douglas
Job: Chief executive of CAFCASS
Qualifications: BSc Psychology, CQSW.
Last job: Director of Social Care and Health, Suffolk County Council.
First job: Junior economic forecaster, James Morrell and Associates.
“I don’t think anymore, I just do”, one of my managers told me recently. He was mourning the loss of the time in which he used to be able to briefly reflect on a problem before acting, even if it was in the bath on a Sunday night.
“I can’t sit still at home any more”, said another, “I get up and down, I fidget. I’m always on the move.”
Both managers were experiencing low-level and insidious work-related stress, not the dramatic sort that sends you to the doctor, but the kind of pressure that leaves you anxious, tired and often less tolerant and less connected to those around you.
This kind of stress has you retreating into yourself. You become less confident and as a result less effective. Concealed low-level work-related stress is now a national professional epidemic.
Above all, managers need to recognise this situation. Organisations have to take steps to reduce workloads; hard at a time when everyone in the public sector is forced to match the drive of the worst workaholic in the team.
The syndrome can be seen when managers become increasingly frenzied trying to change working practices, while front-line practitioners react by switching off and carrying on as they always have done.
The result is frustration all round, more stress and a weakening of the vital psychological contract between staff at all levels and their agency. The agency becomes the bad guy no one wants to be closely associated with.
Of course managers do face serious problems or impossible organisational demands that can’t be put off. The tip here is to turn them into a clear programme for change or recovery as soon as possible, with clarity about the bad news and clarity about what is needed, by whom and by when to turn the situation round. In organisations, a problem shared is definitely a problem halved.
The worst thing you can do is to try to solve problems through increasingly centralised management. Stress is most keenly felt by junior staff as they have less control over their working lives. The more senior you are, in general, the less stressed you are as you have the authority to take control and steer an organisation in the direction you want.
That luxury is less available further down the food chain. So resist the temptation to centralise for all but the shortest periods of time. Far better to spend the time with front-line staff helping them to take the steps the organisation has no alternative but to take.
A particular cause of low-level stress at the moment is all the restructuring, or even worse, serial restructuring where another one begins before the previous one has even ended, let alone been consolidated.
Bland consultation papers and labyrinthine human resources processes produce a bureaucracy of misery in which few are sure they will be in their jobs for the length of time they need to deliver them, even those on whom the organisation depends.
Getting the right manager to lead on restructuring, with top-quality HR advice, can reduce the risks of stress to staff, even if it can’t ever eliminate them. If in doubt, get a restructuring expert in with a proven track record.
Stress in organisations is not much different from stress in the rest of your life. If you don’t deal well with conflict in either place, it will eat you up from within, particularly conflict between individuals who work or live closely together. Managing relationships around you well is essential for keeping stress at bay, and more than that, for making progress.
An ex fire-fighter I worked with used to say “without teamwork, you’re dead”. Making the teams in your organisation work is worth the biggest effort of all but rarely features as a top priority in organisational development programmes, which generally fret and obsess about corporate identity. Strong cohesive teams are stress-busters. The best of them enable team members to deal with everything thrown at them.