Welcome to this course on stress management! By the end of the course, you will have learned:
What stress is.
The various forms stress can take.
What can be done to manage stress in the workplace
How to boost your confidence.
How to overcome common setbacks, whilst retaining a positive self-image.
How to deal with difficult people.
How to handle feedback, including constructive criticism.
How to put what you have learned into practice.
What is stress?
Life rarely goes exactly according to plan. Often, we face competing demands on our time - and a number of obstacles in our day to day lives, both at work and at home. When we feel a significant sense of pressure, as though we are overwhelmed by everything we have to deal with, this is stress. When it comes to stress in the workplace, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines it as follows:
"The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work."
“Workplace stress” is also known as “occupational stress”.
It is normal to experience tension and pressure, sometimes over the course of a typical workday or week. In fact, without a certain amount of pressure, our motivation and work satisfaction would suffer. Many of us find completing a task under pressure or meeting a high-stakes deadline to be very rewarding.
However, when we feel unable to meet the demands of work, we can quickly become stressed. This may be acceptable, or even inevitable, on an occasional basis - for example, if we have to work on an especially large or important project. On the other hand, if stress is our default state, mental and physical illness can result.
It is important to note that stress is the result of an individual perceiving that they cannot cope with the tasks they are required to do. In reality, it may be the case that a person is perfectly capable of completing the work they are asked to tackle, but they feel as though these demands are beyond them. The key issue isn’t whether or not they are actually equipped to rise to a challenge, but whether they believe themselves to be competent.
Workplace stress can develop suddenly - or it can gradually increase to the point at which a person experiences a breakdown, burnout, or health crisis. A single incident, such as a work relocation or a promotion, can be enough to trigger a significant increase in stress. However, some people find that the demands of their job continue to escalate over time, until they simply cannot continue working under those particular conditions.
What factors explain workplace stress?
The HSE believes that six key factors determine the likelihood that any individual will suffer workplace stress. These factors are as follows:
Demands – What is an individual being asked to do at work? It is reasonable? Excessive demands raise the risk of stress. It is the responsibility of an individual’s line manager to conduct regular assessments, in order to determine the feasibility of employees’ workloads.
Control – How far does an employee have control over their work and career in general? Lower levels of perceived control are linked with a higher risk of workplace stress.
Relationships – High quality workplace relationships lower risks of workplace stress. Positive colleague relationships and cohesive teams help a positive working environment to develop, whereas workplace bullying and harassment is a common cause of stress.
Change – Unplanned change can trigger a stress response in many employees - especially if the change is negative, such as downsizing. The way in which an organisation manages and introduces change plays a large role in determining the extent to which it will contribute to employee stress.
Role – Role ambiguity is a factor likely to result in workplace pressure and stress. If an individual is unsure as to what he or she is supposed to be doing, this will lead to confusion and stress.
Support – Psychological, emotional and practical support is invaluable in helping employees prevent or handle workplace stress.
We will return to these factors, later on in the course.
Why is workplace stress a problem worthy of attention?
Stress isn’t just a problem on a personal or individual level. Stressed employees are significantly more likely to take time off work with stress related illness, to report lower levels of job satisfaction and to underperform. It is therefore in an organisation’s best interest to ensure that appropriate stress prevention measures are put in place, to protect the employees’ wellbeing.
It isn’t only high level executives or those in positions of great authority who can experience stress. Everyone can feel the effects of excessive workplace pressure. Those at the top of the organisational tree may feel stressed by the amount of responsibility they must handle, whilst those at lower levels may feel stressed by the relatively more mundane nature of their work - and those at all levels can suffer overwork, confusion regarding job role and general lack of self-confidence. Stress management should therefore be a company-wide concern.
The HSE released some concerning figures regarding workplace stress in 2005. According to their research, over half a million UK workers believed that their health was suffering as the result of workplace stress. Approximately one-sixth (15%) of employees surveyed believed their jobs to be very stressful. Almost 13 million working days are lost to stress, depression or anxiety, directly related to workplace stress, each year. The majority of people affected by workplace stress are middle-aged, but any age group can be affected.
Think back over the past working week. Make a list of any situations in which you have felt under pressure and any that made you feel stressed. Talk about the items on your list with a partner. How do you differentiate between those situations that triggered a stress response and those that merely placed you under pressure? How did you cope with the most stressful or high-pressured situations? Make a note of your personal stress management strategies, as you move through the course.
2. Stress Management
Why do we need stress management policies?
Having established that regular stress is detrimental to both employees and the organisations for which they work, we are going to consider the role of stress management. In particular, this module looks at what is meant by the term “stress management”, whose responsibility it is to ensure it is implemented in your organisation and the practical steps various members of an organisation need to take in lowering employees’ risk of work-related stress.
Stress management policies and procedures apply to everyone working within an organisation. They are in place to satisfy legal requirements, to maximise employee wellbeing and to limit the financial and productivity losses sustained by the company as a result of workplace stress.
What is stress management?
“Stress management” simply refers to any action that is carried out with the intention of limiting the extent and effects of stress. It is far better to prevent stress occurring in the first place, if possible. However, sometimes, this is impractical – for instance, unexpected events may occur in the organisation that could not have been predicted. Stress management also encompasses short-term or acute stress relief.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure workplace stress is managed?
In short, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that stress management is practiced consistently in the workplace. However, according to the HSE, various members of an organisation have unique responsibilities.
Board Members/CEOs have a responsibility to educate themselves regarding the causes and effects of workplace stress. They must be seen to take the issue seriously - otherwise, it is unlikely that those beneath them will feel motivated to tackle the issue. They should show support to those directly supporting employees, such as Health and Safety officers and HR staff. They should model the values they champion, such as balancing their work with the rest of their lives. They should ensure that all managers within the organisation are aware of their legal and moral responsibilities.
Health and Safety Managers need to understand the potential for workplace stress within the organisation and how it can be managed. They should take it upon themselves to further their knowledge of the law surrounding workplace stress. A key element of their role is to liaise with HR staff, to ascertain possible stress-related risk in the organisation and support them in implementing solutions. A Health and Safety Manager may also work directly with employees – possibly providing one to one support and launching initiatives designed to reduce stress.
A Human Resources (HR) Manager’s main role is to implement policies that minimise the risk of workplace stress. It is their responsibility to communicate with employees on related issues and to take the recommendations of the Health and Safety Managers into account, when developing their policies. They need to monitor and improve policies and interventions accordingly. Another part of their role is to coordinate additional services that may help employees who are faced with workplace stress. For instance, they may be responsible for setting up a contract with an external provider of counselling services, whom employees can use if, or when, they face psychological or emotional difficulties.
Line managers have frequent contact with employees - and their cooperation is essential in the prevention, identification and treatment of workplace stress. A well trained manager is well placed to swiftly spot any signs of workplace stress amongst their team. They should familiarise themselves with the symptoms and risk factors associated with workplace stress. They need to engage with those they supervise to address any stressful situations quickly, before they escalate and cause chronic stress - either for a single individual, or the team as a whole. It is important that they encourage employees to engage with anti-stress schemes or initiatives. For example, if HR staff are conducting an enquiry into workplace stress.
Employees need to proactively engage with their organisation’s policies and procedures around workplace stress. Whilst it is the responsibility of the parties listed above to prevent workplace stress and develop relevant policies, employees need to take the initiative too – if they identify a potential issue, it is their responsibility to report it to their line manager, or a member of the HR team. Employees should try and support others who are stressed - and be proactive in referring them on to relevant sources of help.
Examples of workplace stress management policies
Some organisations explicitly deal with workplace stress in their policies. For instance, they may decide that every new employee must receive training in how to detect and deal with workplace stress, or that all employees must attend a stress management seminar every year.
As indicated in the above list of roles and responsibilities, managers have a duty to ensure that those they supervise are not subjected to undue stress. They may monitor their team’s stress levels via standardised procedures, such as bi-annual reviews. Whilst reviewing a team member’s performance, they may also ask questions such as “What is the most stressful element of this job for you?” and “How much stress does your work cause you?” This way, employees and managers can work together to proactively address workplace stress.
Later on in the course, we will address practical ways in which workplace stress may be addressed.
What stress management policies and procedures are in place in your organisation? If you do not know, how could you find out? To what extent do you think these policies and procedures succeed in preventing and addressing workplace stress? Are there any suggestions you would like to see implemented, based on the material in this module?
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