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A Practical Approach to Managing Work Based Stress


Written by John Berry on 5th May 2017. Revised 27th October 2020.

11 min read

Abstract Stressed Face aaron-blanco-tejedor-VBe9zj-JHBs-unsplashLike in so many situations, medical practitioners, government agencies and consultants disagree on the best approach to take to manage stress. For example, they fail to tell managers how to do things to get improvements in cases where employees are victim to stress. It’s perhaps because no one group has grasped the whole picture or fully understood the mechanisms involved. To be fair to them, there are just so many variables.

And it’s like this with the various Health and Safety Executive publications – so many variables. We get the gist of how to determine if there is a stress issue in a large firm (because we can gather statistics) but not about what to do about it, save some mealy mouthed ‘should’ statements. Often we can read and say, "that's my situation", and yet we get no guidance on how to effect corrective action.

So here’s a paper that takes current theory and research, HSE guidelines and some ideas from other disciplines and gives a ‘how to’.

It suggests a method that all managers can use right now to manage anyone they suspect of being victim to stress. It suggests a practical approach to managing work based stress.

The first thing for all readers at this point is to use the search function at the top of this site and search for all TimelessTime articles on stress and read them. It’s important to understand what stress ‘is’ before you try to tackle it.

And follow this link to access our stress management questionnaire based on the HSE work.

And just in case you want a quick summary, stress is the syndrome that occurs when events in a person's life cause excessive stimulation of their 'fight or fight' response. The victim's body floods with stress hormones ready for action. That's natural. But if the stimulation is relentless, the hormones effectively poison the person's system. Like attacking troops in a battlefield, if they could rest up upon taking ground, all would be well. But like the civilian population of the London Blitz, if there is never any letup, the inevitable result is debilitating stress.

Stress: the Syndrome

Under the syndrome we tend to call ‘stress’, an employee finds themselves exhibiting either psychological effects (thoughts and beliefs that consume and possibly debilitate them) or physiological effects (physical conditions that limit their capability) as a result of one or more stressors.

Stressors are things like confusing instructions or insufficient skills to do the job. Stress is normal. We are all stressed. It’s just that in many cases, the stressors are balanced by characteristics of the person and the job thereby allowing us to cope.

But high workload does not cause stress. Many workers cope with huge workloads without succumbing to stress.

In a person in whom stress manifests psychologically or physiologically, there is an imbalance. Their coping strategies are not strong enough to balance the strain. This imbalance may be extreme for a short while or may be moderate but sustained over a long time

When things come to a head, it’s normally because something has happened. The person was coping but now they are not. It could be that a team member has left and everyone is having to pick up the slack. Or it could be that a new system has been installed and training has not been adequate.

An Approach to Management

HSE-Management-Standards-Framework-1024x945This gives the clue about the approach to stress management. Managers must act to regain the balance. The only issue then is, by doing what?

The answer’s actually quite simple. It’s often thought that there are only two possible outcomes – removal of the stressors or enhancement of coping. Maintaining the status quo is not an option because the system comprising job and employee has changed. It MUST be re-balanced by design or default or the employee must learn to cope with the new state.

When such imbalance occurs, medical general practitioners prescribe removal of the stressors, and sign the employee off work for four weeks, or more! Of course, the system is still not balanced when they return to work and so stress occurs again.

Such simple fixes don’t work.

In trying to advise managers, the HSE has a neat framework comprising a set of stress Management Standards. Each gives a centre for analysis and action. Each prospectively suggests cause and solution.

These Management Standards reflect all current research on the stressors that contribute to strain (and ultimately stress) and the positive aspects of jobs that reduce the effect of those stressors. The problem is that the HSE approach assumes that the employer is the only entity that must act to recover the balance in the employee. Both employer and employee must both be prepared to work at a solution.

The HSE Framework

Let’s take the Health and Safety Executive framework and see what’s meant by ‘centres for analysis and action’. The titles of the HSE Management Standards are shown underlined. Comments are given against each to illustrate what’s meant and ideas about what action to take are given.

Demands: Are the demands of the job placed on the job holder balanced by adequate personal and system resources?

If there is a sense that the demands of the job are greater than the resources, then further work needs to be done to take action to boost the person's resources.

Control: Can the job holder make decisions about when and how they do jobs within the scope of getting the job done efficiently?

If there is a sense that the job holder is just a rat on a treadmill, there needs to be discussion about how this can be changed. The job holder must derive meaning from the job.

Support: Is the job holder provided with adequate support day to day, in scheduling work and when coming across difficulty?

If there is a sense that the job holder is left to cope on their own, analysis is needed to determine how management and colleagues should better give support?

Change: Is the job holder in a constant state of flux with everything about the job changing?

Whilst nothing today is cast in stone and change is inevitable, change should be introduced over time and staff should be given time and training to adjust. If there is a sense that staff are left to keep up unaided, managers need to change.

Role: Is the job holder aware of their role and how they interface and interact with others?

If there is a sense that the job holder is just a pawn in a system and has no real idea of their position in the firm, that might have to change through training and induction and everyday manager action.

Relationships: Strong positive colleague and manager relationships help staff to withstand pressure.

But sometimes relationships can be very negative with bullying and harassment elevating stress. If there is any sense of this in relationships with managers and collegues, action may be needed.

The HSE framework is a good starting point. As noted however, it focuses on the work environment, assuming that this is the root cause of the problems. This is seldom the case. There are two important points that need to be added.

Stressors Act Together

The first is that stressors act together. Stressors add like forces. Those familiar with forces in physics might recognise this metaphor. Stressors have magnitude and direction and are applied over time.

So a huge negatively-acting stressor applied for a short time might appear to be a big issue, but actually, because it’s only there for a short period, the employee copes quite well. An example of this might be a police officer engaged in a public order conflict.

Conversely a number of weak negative stressors continuously acting together will wear the employee down and have a greater effect. Negatively acting stressors are balanced by positive attributes of work like high employee competence, strong relationships with colleagues or sound management support. It’s all a question of balance.

Spillover Between Home and Work

Secondly, every person has a work life and a home life.

They may be carers or volunteers, they may be in relationships and they may have children. Their home life will also have stressors and one could run the same analysis using the HSE framework on the employee’s home life. Here of course there may be no one to share the problems with. The result may be that there is spillover between work and home life that results in strain from one expressed as stress in the other.

And of course, taking the forces analogy further, a net positive situation at home may help balance a net negative situation at work or vice versa.

This illustrates stress situation analysis as a complex picture-building process.

This doesn’t help the manager in implementing a precise set of work-based interventions that will regain balance in the person’s life or have them learn to cope better. So how, therefore, does a manager proceed?

A Practical Approach to Managing Work Based Stress

Stressor-Strain-System-300x175Let’s look at another analogy – that of the feedback control loop in systems engineering and electronics. The idea is shown graphically adjacent.

The inputs are the Management Standards or areas from the HSE framework. The output is personal performance.

If stress occurs in the employee, it reduces the person’s performance. The system employs a control loop that feeds back some of the output (the performance) to the input to effect corrective action. All the Management Standards as forces are aggregated in the multiplier (the device marked X) along with the error signal from the output.

We all understand this process when we’re trying to do something. When we’re not performing, we get feedback that says ‘below par, try harder’ and we do more in the activity to correct and re-balance the loop.

Stress is similar. In managing stress, the manager needs to get a sense about which of the Management Standards is itself out of balance. This might be done via a questionnaire or through discussion.

Let’s assume that the demands of the job exceed the resources that the employee brings to bear - they don't have the skills or knowledge. Either this ‘force’ must be brought into balance or other forces, as inputs to the system, must be used to counter. So it may be that if the demands-resources force is imbalanced, the manager might act to mentor the employee or arrange personal development. Either way, the forces must balance or the performance suffers for the same personal characteristics and coping level.

Getting a Sense

The manager must ‘get a sense’ of what’s going to work and try it.

Often it's called 'being mindful'. Sensing involves looking, listening, enquiring and most of all, not denying.

The manager must sense what’s happening on the output of the system as a result of the action of the control loop. If the chosen action is not having the desired effect, an alternative combination of actions must be tried. Actions giving positive results should be sustained whilst those with less effect are discarded.

And so the manager proceeds until the employee stressor-strain system is brought into balance and the person is able to say that psychological or physiological effects have reduced below the threshold of strain and their symptoms are tolerable.

At that point the employee can cope once more.

Now, we noted that it’s not all down to the manager. What makes some folk cope and others not is differing personal characteristics. Some folk have ‘inner strength’ that drives their personal volition. Some are able to put things into context better than others. And so it is that the person suffering stress can themselves take action. The box illustrating the personal characteristics above is not fixed. Employees can, for example, make sure that they get rest, take holidays, eat well and stay mentally and physically fit. Holidays, hobbies and weekends all give interruption to a relentless pressure, turning a job that might be stressful into something that the jobholder copes with and even flourishes in.

Significance of Personal Characteristics

The personal characteristics device (the rectangular box) noted above can therefore be changed. It can be developed in exactly the same way as the company environment – by sensing that a particular change might have the required balancing effect, this time elevating the coping threshold. Again the person makes changes whilst measuring the outcome and then changing and measuring again.

Ulatimately though, the manager may have to accept that they have the wrong person in the job. The solution may come in moving the sufferer to some other job better suited to their personality.

So there is nothing inevitable about stress. There is much in either the person or the environment that can be changed. But there is no magic solution. It is for the manager to talk to the employee, investigate and explore possible causes, sense the root causes of the stress and implement change. Manager and employee then must adopt things that work and abandon things that don’t until the manager is happy with the performance and the employee is happy with their level of stress.