Is Your Workplace Suffering from Contagious Stress?Written by Graham Yemm
We wonder how many of you might recognise this scenario? Although it happened with a male manager, it could apply to men or women. The manager we worked with had been promoted to a more senior role and was experiencing demands from all sides. He became increasingly tired, was working long hours and spending less time with his family. His overall energy dropped, anxiety levels increased, sleep was disrupted and concentration and focus diminished. He no longer took time to exercise, found himself snatching meals of dubious quality and kept himself going with constant fixes of coffee and Red Bull. Apart from impact on him – what do you think were effects on his family and people who worked for and with him?
Imagine what it was like working for him. How supportive was he as a manager? How clear was his direction and communication? Was he just seeing errors and problems? Were his team, and colleagues, starting to feel stressed because of his behaviours?
What about someone working in a customer facing role, who has had trouble getting to work, pressures at home, a sudden increase of customer complaints and problems? The pressure gets to them and they start to become irritable with colleagues – and then with customers. What will that do to colleagues and business? The colleagues may be understanding for a while, but longer it goes on, risk is that they catch disease! Communication and team support disappear and morale goes down. Suppose it gets worse and our person feels they cannot face it and so take some time off. Now who bears brunt of this? Oh, and what happens with customers? What would it be like to visit this workplace? Imagine what you would see, hear and feel.
Stress rarely happens in isolation or to one individual. (Although it may feel that way!) When someone begins to get stressed there will be a ripple effect spreading out from them. Those closest feel effect first! Whether it is person at top who cascades problems down and through organisation, a line-manager struggling to cope with their job (especially when promoted into it) or a person with loads of pressures in their non-work life – they are contagious!!! The spread will be insidious if nothing is done about it. It becomes a vicious spiral and creates more work for those still there to do it.
Many of you reading this are aware that you have pressures on you from all sides, possibly from your family, your friends, colleagues, your own teams and direct reports – and yourself! Juggling your time and attention across these is a difficult challenge! What makes these pressures worse can be your own expectations of yourself and what you believe you should be doing. This could be concerned with demonstrating how capable and professional you are in your role. It could be because you feel you should be giving your family or friends more of your time and attention.
A consequence of this could be that you start to feel pressure mounting and begin to react to things differently. Maybe you become less patient with some colleagues, department who miss deadline, people in your team who do not communicate in right way for you. If you are not careful you may be originator of “virus” and before long it is spreading to those you interact with and they start to act in a stressed way!
Why does it matter? Stress is likely to lead to problems within business. These will effect bottom-line, directly or indirectly. The most obvious impact can be loss of business, maybe through poor service, or poor quality. Your costs certainly rise, whether because of lower productivity or having to correct or rework mistakes. Then there is “human cost” of low morale, probably leading to absences (eventually long-term) – and possibly leaving. This results in increasing staff turnover, with all ensuing costs and pitfalls.
The Cost of Stress – the Need to Monitor and Manage the Risks!Written by Graham Yemm
How much attention is paid to one of biggest underlying risk factors within an organisation – effects of stress? Not only are there a lot of potential risks arising from spread of stress within an organisation, it costs them a great deal of money!!
Let us start with looking at some hard-nosed numbers (based on UK.).
Had enough of this? Moving on to think about risk of unmanaged stress to organisations we can start by looking at “knock-on” risks.
- The CBI estimate that there is a cost of £4bn per annum to industry as a direct result of stress related absence.
- This figure can rise to over £7bn when you consider loss of productivity!
- A recent survey by HSE indicated over 550,000 cases of absence as a result of stress, depression and anxiety.
- A further 66,000 were absent with heart problems as a result of stress.
- There was a loss of nearly 13m working days in total.
- The average absence was 28.5 days for stress-related issues.
- 1 in 5 believe that their job is extremely or very stressful – that is 5 million people!
- Up to 40% of absence is related to stress.
- When stressed, performance can be reduced by up to 70%
- The CIPD estimate that stress costs industry £522 per employee.
Where an organisation is suffering from stress problems there will be a number of probable consequences, all with ensuing costs to business. Also, what other risks might they contribute to?
When we take into account figures and also these probable knock-on effects, it makes sense to think about managing organisation in a way which will reduce potential impact of stress. Indeed, that is a key part of one of HSE initiatives and introduction of their “Management Standards for Stress.” Although these are not compulsory in themselves, there is legislation around it! There is duty of care and responsibility attached to managers as part of Health and Safety legislation. This means undertaking risk assessments, creating a positive environment and managing work activity to reduce stress and pressure at work.
- If atmosphere is getting worse there will be an increase in staff turnover. The costs of this are often overlooked or hidden behind some spurious justification. What is direct cost of recruiting replacements? Oh, and indirect costs? What is cost of loss of experience and expertise? Staff turnover disrupts business in many ways and reduces profitability. Simultaneously, costs will increase too!
- When individuals are suffering from stress their work performance is likely to deteriorate. The quality of decision making will go down, possibly with faulty judgements being made. What is risk to organisation of this? It is probable that rate of casual errors will increase too – with what consequences?
- The relations between people will be effected, for worse! As communication, support or teamworking deteriorate then people will not enjoy coming to work and levels of commitment are likely to reduce. This will probably mean that customer service gets worse too – again, with what consequences? (This will also apply to internal customers as well as external.)
- As people become less motivated, and even demotivated, their productivity goes down and impact of that is………?
Before going further into these, let us consider what is meant by this word, “stress”. The HSE define it as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.” A simpler option is to think of it as “the internalisation of pressure – where it exceeds your ability to cope.” When we hear people say things such as “We all need some degree of stress”, what is really being said is that we need some level of pressure to galvanise us to action. These pressures can come from all sorts of sources in a work and personal lives – and within ourselves too.
The figure below, “The Pressure Curve” shows what we mean by this. If amount of pressure is not high enough, we do not feel need to respond and so performance is likely to be down. (Wonderfully called “rust out” in certain circles.) Have you ever gone into a shop, restaurant or somewhere on a very quiet day? What was response and service like? This end of scale can lead to problems from boredom level!
Get pressure “right” and we are triggered to respond in most effective way – and will operate at our “optimal performance” level. Moving along towards end, pressure levels increase and when this is too much response is what most people think of as classic stress problem, “burn out”
This rarely just “happens” suddenly. The pressures build up, symptoms will become more and more obvious, physiological and behavioural clues will be more noticeable. If situation does not change, and pressure become more manageable, person who is at this end will probably start to become ill as body sends out signals to say it needs to protect itself against this burnout.
The challenge facing managers with this concept is to identify what is “optimal” amount of pressure for each person in their team. We each interpret pressures in different ways. What one of us may shrug off, another will think of as a crisis and vice versa. Add to this, we all have various pressures influencing us which are external to our work. These can range from personal relationships to financial, environmental to practical such as travelling. Then there is human capacity to create pressure on ourselves through having unreasonable expectations or by finding things to worry about over which we have no control! How well do managers know their team members to assess their personal “negative” and “positive” pressures?