Management behaviour is at the root of increasing stress levels in the workplace, according to new research out this week. In the MetLife Employee Benefits survey, 69% of employees said the behaviour of bosses is leading to increased sickness absence and poor productivity.
And, as a recent article in The Atlantic points out, managers themselves are not immune to stress. They often find themselves enforcing policies from they don’t necessarily agree with, while also being on the receiving end of flak from the people who report to them. There’s a tendency to think managers automatically know how to get the best out of their people. But that’s often not the case, especially if they have never had any guidance or training.
It’s a problem organisations cannot afford to ignore. Estimates suggest that around 35% of all work-related ill-health is caused by stress. Leading to a staggering 9.9 million working days lost per year. Not to mention the significant investment currently being made by organisations in wellness programmes (which is currently being undermined by this behaviour).
So, what can HR do to help managers improve stress levels in their teams and make sure they are not inadvertently exacerbating the problem?
1. Help managers build self-awareness
Managers are not always aware of the impact their behaviour has on others – or how best to tackle their own stress levels. They may not appreciate the importance of regular feedback or open communication, for example, or understand that if they come into the office in a grumpy mood it can affect the dynamic of the whole team.
HR can help managers build self-awareness and resilience through development programmes, 360 degree feedback, psychometric tests and by generally nurturing a culture where ongoing feedback is encouraged for both managers and staff.
2. Spread awareness of the signs of stress
Research from the CIPD suggests that only 10% of managers have received training on how to manage ill mental health in the workplace. HR can support managers by helping them recognise and spot the signs of stress so they can act early.
If managers are wired to notice alarm bells such as: uncharacteristic behaviour, mood swings, withdrawal or indecision, they can take steps — even if it’s only to ask the individual if anything is wrong. Managers also need help in understanding when they can deal with an issue themselves, and when they may need to refer the employee to HR so they can be pointed in the direction of professional support.
3. Provide performance management training
Inappropriate approaches to performance management are at the root of much workplace stress. It’s not uncommon for managers to set ever-more stretching targets, and then bawl employees out if they don’t meet them (often without understanding why) or to use the annual appraisal as an opportunity to pull people up on everything that’s not going well while ignoring all the positives.
As a result, employees are left demotivated and demoralised – and in the worst case scenario may crack under the strain of a burgeoning workload with no support. HR needs to make sure that managers are well versed in the objectives of the company performance management system, understand how to give effective feedback and know how to conduct an appraisal that leaves people feeling energised and encouraged.
4. Challenge the status quo
Thanks to technological developments, it’s never been easier for people to work flexibly. Yet, in many organisations, it’s a practice that’s still frowned upon and misunderstood. HR can help senior managers understand the business benefits of flexible working and can support departments in finding ways of organising work that benefits clients and improves productivity, as well as supporting employees.
Often, very simple adjustments to the working day – such as an earlier start time or the occasional opportunity to work from home – can help people reduce stress and cope with the demands of their job more effectively.
5. Act as role models
When it comes to reducing stress, HR needs to walk the talk. And encourage managers in the business to do the same.
That could mean injecting some fun into the business with team outings or encouraging a focus on physical and mental well-being. And be sure that you find time to unwind and relax, perhaps by truly switching off while on holiday, being seen to leave the office at a reasonable time and not struggling into work when you’re feeling really poorly and ought to be at home.