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Mind how you go at work, helping your workforce cope with stress

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Ahead of World Mental Health Day on Saturday 10 October, Kate Cooper, head of research and policy at the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), discusses four ways managers can equip their teams to deal with stress.

Stress in our busy lives

Stress has become synonymous with today’s fast-paced lifestyle and, for the majority of people, it is a given that there will be times when their job feels difficult to manage. So the better a person feels able to cope with stress the less disruptive it will be on their life and work. In fact, a manager’s ability to cope and balance their workload has a direct impact on their performance and happiness, according to research by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM). 

In the report, ‘The pursuit of happiness: positivity and performance among UK managers’, the top 100 performers rated themselves highly in their ability to cope with stress (80 out of 100) while those who rated themselves lowest (41) were the worst performers.

ILM’s research also found that a degree of stress can actually aid performance, with employees who experience no stress (and the very stressed) performing least well. However, anxiety about work can easily get out of control and its potential negative impact on both performance and workforce health should never be underestimated by employers, which is why ILM has some advice for managers  to better equip their teams to deal with stress.

1. Start before it begins

The best approach to dealing with stress in the workplace is a preventative one. Gordon Tinline, director at Robertson Cooper, a wellbeing, engagement and resilience specialist, urges employers to take the steps necessary to “de-stress” the working environment before issues arise, such as working on relationships and balancing workload.

2. Train managers to recognise stress

If managers are unable to manage their own workload, it’s highly unlikely they can create a stress-free environment for their teams.
 
Employers, therefore, must provide managers with support and training to manage their own stress and that of their teams. “Managers must be trained to be champions of wellbeing rather than proponents of stress,” says Neil Shah, director at the Stress Management Society. Tinline suggests that managers need to understand the impact of their behaviour and suggests that a combination of resilience training and an awareness of their own leadership style can help with this.

This training should also include spotting the signs of stress. The most visible outward indications are high absenteeism and a fall-off in productivity, but managers should be alert to out-of-character behaviour such as irritability, anxiety and loss of confidence. 

3. Make wellbeing important

Fostering the right conditions and providing the necessary training and education can be backed by a raft of wellbeing measures. The link between physical activity and improved mental health is long established. And while not every company can afford to offer its employees gym membership, there are lower cost options that can prove effective, such as encouraging lunchtime walks.

4. Publicise the options available

It is also vital to ensure employees know about the options open to them. According to Shah, research conducted by the Stress Management Society found that for every £75 spent on wellbeing support, only £1 is spent communicating it to the workforce.

While stress and wellbeing experts advocate a holistic and preventative approach to dealing with workplace stress, there is nothing wrong with introducing some pilot or individual measures. “These will result in staff feeling more valued and engaged, and if you are able to show they have delivered benefits to your own workforce, it could be used to build the business case for a wider strategy,” explains Shah. He recommends, though, that any one-off wellbeing activity will bring more lasting benefit if it is accompanied by some attendant form of education for the workforce.

Given the pressures placed on organisations and their employees today, it is rare to find a workplace that hasn’t been affected by stress in some way. Fortunately, it is no longer the taboo subject it once was, although there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems that needs to be broken down. Employers have a huge part to play in moving this discussion on. Stress is a modern day phenomenon that isn’t going to disappear overnight. We all have to learn to live with it and, more importantly, how to manage it.

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