Stress at Work

The costs of stress

There are many signs that stress, caused by working habits and practices, is increasing. The obvious ones are increasing stress related illness, excessive smoking and drinking and family and marital breakdown.

Stress causes immense problems to organisations and is very costly. Individual reactions to excessive stress can include defensive working (doing work to anticipate criticism), rushing into activity without thinking, making mistakes. It also leads to people not listening and therefore poor communication. These all lead to reduced organisational effectiveness and make unnecessary work in an already stretched organisation. Of course people work less productively when they are ill.

The costs to individuals of illness and unhappiness are obvious.

The excessive hours that many people work greatly affect families. A Relate/Marriage Guidance Council official has informally estimated that organisational (work related) stress causes up to 90% of relationship breakdown. Most of this will be because of over commitment of one or both partners to work. Also, young children may not see one or both parents except at weekends.

The costs of the above do not only fall on family members. They also fall on the wider society. Children from broken homes are not only more likely to be taken into care than children from stable homes but are also more likely to become criminal and antisocial. Recent evidence has also shown that children from broken homes under-perform in formal education also. They are thus likely to contribute less skill to the wider society and have less purchasing power. Handling and managing these increasing side effects of stress at work will prove very costly. It would be more effective to reduce the effects through preventive action rather than deal with them after they have occurred.


Individual action

Individuals can manage the stress that impacts on them by talking about their feelings and reactions to an interested listener. This will lead them to be more objective about their work. People may then question the standards and output required of them by others. They will say “Do you want a back of an envelope answer now or a detailed report in a week?”. They may also start to argue rationally about totally unreasonable demands.

Individuals can also help themselves by keeping fit, having a variety of interests including work and always asking themselves “Why am I doing this? Does it make sense? What do I really want from life/work?” If things are not right, it helps to talk about it and ask for help.

‘Techniques’ such as meditation or yoga help some people.

There is much that individuals can do to help others cope with or reduce their stress level. For instance, you can listen supportively for a few minutes when people want to talk. You can be clear and reasonable about the standards and time scales required of the work you expect. Try noticing when people show signs of stress and enquiring gently how they are.

Group action

A group that works together every day can be a major source of stress because people argue, score points, manipulate each other and are generally unsupportive. Alternatively, a group can be a safe place where people are free to be themselves. Then it may be supportive enough to be positively healing of stress and enable people to achieve and learn.

A group that decides to move in the latter direction will need to provide time where its members can listen to each other without being judged, criticised or interrupted. It need not be a long time but the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Members will think more clearly and act more powerfully because their negative feelings and positive hopes have been heard and accepted. This support group process may need an outside facilitator to lead it initially but it will soon become self sustaining.

In a supportive group it becomes easier to examine ‘difficult’ questions like ‘How can we avoid making unnecessary work for each other? ‘, ‘How much of our work do we have to do? ‘ A supportive group is likely to be able to listen to other groups and create a supportive climate between groups. This climate will lead better communication and therefore less stress. It also improves organisational effectiveness.

Organisational actions

The top management of an organisation is in a difficult position as it contemplates the problems of stress. The individual pressures and stresses on top managers are as bad as those on any individual and the effects are the same. Outside influences, for example from even more senior managers, the Government and the City, demand immediate short term returns.

As individuals, top managers have as much to gain from stress reduction strategies as anyone. For the health of the organisation and the people in it managers need to respond to the demands on them intelligently. Senior managers get very little time to think. They often find just talking and thinking outloud to an interested listener ouside the organisation very useful. More relaxed organisations are more effective and better places to work in.

Top management can help the rest of the organisation to deal with the stress that will get through by supporting the people working for them, giving background about requests for work, listening to and seeking feedback on the impact of their work style, accepting shortcuts and ‘quick and dirty’ solutions when they are adequate and many more.

Training implications

Stress is best relieved through the creation of self, group and organisational support. There is much evidence that supportive organisations produce better quality and are more effective in the long term. Thus any training intervention designed to reduce destructive stress must increase support and have, itself, a highly supportive atmosphere.

This leads to several possible activities

  • A course for individuals about ‘Looking after yourself/looking after others at work’. This would include looking at lifestyle, exercise, interests and awareness of the signs of stress in self and others. It would also include listening and influencing skills.
  • Workshops for teams of people who work together. These would create a supportive atmosphere, use supportive processes and help people look at how they work together and how to do so better in the future. This might lead to looking at how to work more supportively with other teams.
  • Individual work with top managers to help them think clearly about their own priorities and strategy and encourage the managers to look after themselves.
  • A top management seminar where they look together at the pressures and stresses they experience, and their causes. They then identify ways to handle these stresses, reduce their impact down the organisation and create a more supportive culture.

Any activity which says the organisation is concerned about stress must make this subject easier to talk about and can only be beneficial.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick