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Stress in the Workplace - A Management Responsibility

Stress is considered to be the main cause of many medical conditions, including heart problems. At the same time, the nature of stress is multifaceted and difficult to define, and the reasons for its increase are poorly understood.
Stress in the workplace can have a disastrous effect on peoples' health and lead to sickness and absence. It can also seriously disrupt the business and reduce profits. Yet many organisations consider stress to be a personal problem of individual workers, and something which an organisation can do little to address.

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The amount of stress in the workplace is generally considered to be increasing. The concept of a job for life has been consigned to history and most workers will need to learn new skills during the course of their career. Male manual workers in traditional heavy industries such as mining, steel and manufacturing may need to adapt to the very different work situation of an office environment. Advances in Information Technology mean that staff will need to become computer literate and this can be a major challenge for anyone over 40 years of age.

The cost of labour is invariably the biggest cost of any organisation in a western economy and dwarfs the costs of machinery and business premises. Most large firms have an opportunity to relocate part of their operations in a low wage location such as India, and this increases the pressure on management to increase the productivity of staff in the mature economies of the west. All companies are searching for ways to reduce their staff and to make their existing staff work harder and to greater effect.

In one sense, stress can be productive. Giving people targets and deadlines invariably generates mild levels of stress and this state of agitation can help to focus attention on the tasks to hand.

However, many workers report symptoms of stress which are decidedly unhealthy and lead to sickness and prolonged periods of absence from work. It has always been the case that high flying, young male executives experience high levels of stress and this often leads to burn out at an early age. These high flyers were often difficult to work with and received little sympathy from colleagues whom they had mistreated over the years, in the event of a physical or mental collapse.

In recent times, stress has permeated the entire workplace and there are many people who genuinely feel that they are unable to cope with the demands of work. Responses vary. Some staff will seek to avoid responsibility and try to get others to make difficult decisions. Others will turn down opportunities for promotion. Some will simply start looking for a job elsewhere, and eventually leave the organisation. Worse still, some may embark on regular and prolonged periods of sickness, while still drawing their salaries and other benefits of employment.

Most articles on the subject of stress focus on ways an individual can try to reduce stress in work and learn how to cope. While these are undoubtedly useful, it should also be remembered that the management of the organisation is ultimately responsible for the welfare of staff. A stress ridden workplace, with high staff turnover and excessive sick leave is neither beneficial for employees nor the organisation itself.

A progressive company should always be looking for new ways of working more efficiently and effectively in order to reduce costs and increases revenues or profits. The management of human resources is probably the most crucial element in this quest.

There are several things an organisation can do

1 The organisation of work in a company should be a top management function, and should be the subject of company wide, regular reviews. This does not mean that emphasis should be place on rewriting job functions every few months. In fact many argue that excessively detailed job specifications are the source of inertia and atrophy. What is required is an appreciation of the human implications of corporate strategy. In other words, as the activities of the organisation change or expand, then careful thought should be given as to how the workforce should adapt to these changes in order to make the strategy a success.

2 Recruitment of skilled and capable staff is essential to the achievement of corporate objectives. In all organisations, there will be leaders and followers, and poor selection of leaders will inevitably lead to corporate collapse. Therefore great care should be given to the selection process for the recruitment of key staff. In addition to personal qualities such as vision, intelligence, energy and dynamism, it is also important that key staff can inspire and motivate their junior colleagues.

3 Management styles have, or should have, moved away from the traditional hierarchical and authoritarian based military model. In other words, staff perform tasks, not because they are simply told to by management, but because they appreciate the value of their role in the organisation as a whole. On this approach, the remit of a manager is to assist staff to perform their roles and to inspire commitment based on his or her personal example.

4 There should be a culture in the workplace whereby staff who are experiencing difficulty in discharging their tasks have an informal forum in which to discuss these matters. It is simply incorrect to think that the reason why a person is not performing well must always be due to a personal failure on their behalf. Staff are often given targets which are impossible and deadlines which are unrealistic. In this case, the failure lies with the manager who allocated this task, rather than the unfortunate person who was given the job.

5 All workers should have a personal development plan. The plan should identify the skills they need to develop and discharge their responsibilities more effectively, and provide training or supervised learning experiences which will assist in skill building. If a member of staff is content with his or her current responsibilities and is not seeking a pay rise or promotion, then one should be able to articulate this preference without fear of ridicule or discrimination.

If these steps are implemented then the staff of an organisation will learn how to work imaginatively and proactively. This will invariably lead to a reduction in stress.

Read about practical ways to combat stress at Stress Tips

Copyright - Leslie Hardy, 20 June 2007

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