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John Amaechi OBE

Stress: Can't Live With It... So What Should We Do About It?

23 April 2019 | by John Amaechi OBE

Considering the oft-touted impacts of workplace stress, such as the decline of morale and motivation, productivity and performance, physical and mental wellbeing, you might think that a totally stress-free workplace is the goal for everyone… but should it be?

Let’s consider a picture of the optimal work environment.

In this hypothetical workplace, people come in knowing they will be doing interesting and consequential work every day. The work challenges their experience, skills and talents in a rewarding fashion and each person knows that they have a meaningful measure of control over the work they do and how they complete it.

These workers feel that they are surrounded by peers who are similarly minded and who feel a shared sense of responsibility for collective outcomes, that the processes and procedures involved are mature and work seamlessly, and that whatever the product of the organisation, it’s in demand and the future is certain.

Every manager in this workplace is a people leader, not just a project manager or ‘resource mover’, who feels a tangible responsibility for the ongoing development of their staff (and, indeed, everyone in their organisation). They didn't become managers by virtue of being technically brilliant, indispensable experts in their chosen subject matter, but rather due to their aptitude for creating an environment that facilitates getting the best out of others.

In this organisation there are clearly described and evidently lived values and a mutuality of organisational purpose that resonates with everyone’s personal perspective. The need for change is iterative, if it exists at all, and the workplace as a whole is a true meritocracy.

Already, many of you will think this fantasy or at least a reality so fantastic as to be impossible at any real scale, but I share this as an example of the ideal that many workplaces describe in their recruitment collateral and on their client-facing websites.

And while I share this vision of what the potential ‘perfect’ workplace might look like, even in this picture of the world of work, there would be stress. Lots of it.

There would be stress from the complex lives people have outside of work,

There would be stress born of interpersonal friction and the numerous ‘difficult conversations’ required in any high-performance environment.

There would be the stress of those hindered by the shadow of imposter syndrome, the stress of failure, of change, of winning… the list goes on.

So even in this prototypically perfect workplace the early identification of stress and the development of a proactive, comprehensive management strategy – not some sort of mythical ‘stress vaccine’ – would be key to its functionality.

Unsurprisingly then, this is even truer in real-life workplaces, which are frequently FAR from optimal, and the ability to identify the early indicators of building stress and the development of one or two basic (individual or organisational) tools for heading off stress overflow should be seen as a vital skillset for every employee and something these organisations need to address strategically.

We all have to deal with boring, onerous, repetitive tasks, disengaged co-workers, managers who aren’t leaders (and are often more interested in the “delegation”, rather than the “management”, part of their role), unclear company strategies, unrealistic deadlines and nebulous, specious appraisals that masquerade as ‘feedback’.

In this non-optimal environment, instead of seeing the identification and management of stress as an individual, collegial AND organisational challenge, many choose to ‘interventionise’ and delegate wellbeing and stress management solely to the individual level, rather than engage with and try to change damaging company practices (despite the obvious benefits of this approach).

These workplaces would rather build a quiet room/prayer space/meditation area/“neuro-diversity space” (because a new HBR article once said these spaces promote ‘wellbeing’), or provide employees with sleep pods (because “sleep is good”… just not at home), “free” onsite food, a gym membership (because “exercise is good for the brain”) or even an onsite workout facility (because “never leaving the building is good for you”) – anything at all, really, which allows them to address the symptoms while ignoring the cause.

As one of the directors of the UK’s largest NHS trust I know that stress is everyday company for our staff and clinicians, from admin and clerical to frontline nursing staff, medics and custodial staff.

One analysis suggests the factors most at play include:

  • long hours, work overload and pressure
  • the effects of these on personal lives
  • lack of control over work and lack of participation in decision making
  • poor social support (in and outside work)
  • unclear/poor management and work role(s)

So many of the above list can be ameliorated by quality leadership. This is not about “pandering to snowflakes” but about recognising that while high-performing workplaces see some level of stress as a necessary companion to ambition and quality, they do NOT see the ability to endure crippling levels of stress as some deviant rite of passage.

A conscientious workplace will embrace individual and organisational stress identification measures and stress management tools that help people identify burgeoning stress before it peaks (as well as the common physical and habitual triggers which precede it).

And a truly supportive organisation will teach peers and colleagues to identity nascent stress signals before they manifest in a full-blown crisis, and will provide support in the form of non-punitive stress-management protocols (including adaptive working conditions, effective leadership training, technology augmentation/removal, etc).

I am grateful that in my own consultancy, one filled with the challenge of growth and client demands, my team recognises before I do when stress might be having an undue influence on me, and responds with the sort of understanding, empathy, and respect which I hope will one day be common to all workplaces

And while my company isn’t optimal either (we’re working on it!) we know that to win in this world, we don’t need to pretend we can avoid stress entirely but should instead remain on the lookout for stress signals as a collective, and ensure that we address them directly before they reach critical-mass, rather than abdicate that task to those already burdened by them.

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