Wednesday 15 October 2014

Why stress is now more difficult for managers to manage

Currently, I'm overhauling some templates I developed several years ago to help managers assess and manage the risks posed by stress. I'll be publishing these updated resources in the next few weeks. I'll also be making some changes to training courses to take account of these developments.

The templates will include forms and tools that managers can use and accompanying guidance notes. These resources will hopefully make things clearer about what managers should do when they have a concern about a member of their team becoming vulnerable to stress problems.

On the face of it, it should be a relatively straightforward task. I've been in this business for 20 years, so you'd think I'd just need to tweak things a bit. I wish it was as simple as that. A number of fundamental issues have complicated things and I'm grappling with these as I work on the templates.

I'd like to highlight a couple of them here.

Firstly, there's the work v non-work stress issue. It's argued that in terms of management responsibility and legal obligations to conduct risk assessments, non-work stress is not the manager's responsibility. Managers should, the argument goes, focus their efforts on work-related stress only.
Here in the UK, the known risk factors for work-related stress are set out in something called the Management Standards along with guidance for organizations on the process they should follow to manage these risks.
In real life though, this rigid, work-stress-only approach to managing stress risks doesn't work, and certainly not at the level of the line manager. Why? Because life is messy. Bad stuff happens in people's personal lives which makes them more vulnerable to stress problems or even overwhelms them. I've seen non-work stress increase markedly in recent years (and discussed some of the trends that's led to this in a previous blog post). This stress almost inevitably has an impact at work, for example on work performance. Therefore, managers cannot and should not ignore non-work stress.

Then there is the issue of support for managers, which has also become more complex and difficult in the last 10 to 15 years. It used to be the case that there were clear support structures inside organizations that managers could turn to for advice around 'welfare matters'. There was Personnel of course, although this more recently morphed into Human Resources with perhaps a 'harder', more business-oriented focus. Many organizations also had welfare officers or counsellors on site. And for many managers, Occupational Health was still available where they worked. The internal support professionals involved often knew the managers personally. They also knew the employees who worked for them. And they were familiar with the contexts, the environments in which people worked.

Some lucky managers still have access to these valuable support structures internally but the majority do not. HR, if it still exists in some form, has largely been outsourced, and HR support is often provided via a call centre or even online only. The reality is that we now live in the age of predominantly external support structures like HR Consultancies, Employee Assistance Programmes and Occupational Health Providers.

Managers are much more on their own than they were, and they know it too. They're largely left to get on with it, including dealing with 'stress' issues. Some have the skills and competencies for this task, but many do not. Some aren't coping and are themselves experiencing high stress levels as a result.

It's great to see some organizations having a complete re-think about outsourcing, bringing support back in-house. But the trend is still, overwhelmingly, to outsource, especially in the public sector. Support has been seen as a 'cost' that can be cut, and not a 'core activity'. That's how it is just now and I accept it. But I hope the percentage of organizations who 'get' the return-on-investment argument will increase, particularly around support for managers.

In the meantime, I'll get back to the task in hand, trying to produce some meaningful stress risk assessment tools and resources that take account of these challenges. I hope they will help and make a difference to today's managers.

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