Stress is a subject that has ebbed and flowed in the minds of industry because of the Press about it and the reputation it has for being a negative experience. One of the reasons for this is because it is often seen as a weakness to admit to stress or mental ill health and individuals who do so may fear their difficulties will go on record or stay with them even as they move jobs, thereby acting as a barrier to their success. This is the reason why National Grid recently undertook a whole campaign called the Elephant in the Room with my input, in order to tackle or combat the stigma discussing stress can have for people. To be fair, the Health & Safety watchdog and the Government now place a joint emphasis on Stress that it is a shared responsibility that both businesses have for their employees and the employees have for themselves. So how can you help an individual without taking total responsibility for fixing the problems or issues they have?
When someone has experienced something tragic in their lives it can be delicate to know what to do for the best as if truth be told, we want them to feel supported whilst equally being aware of the commercial need to keep the business running well. Situations go wrong when we err on the side of being too tough and stop an individual feeling able to disclose their unhappiness or personal problems, but equally it can go wrong if we spend too much time listening to troubles and yet want that person to still stay motivated and productive. So what can we do in a situation such as this?
1. Firstly, it is the law that all organizations with more than 5 employees in the U.K. must have a Policy on Stress but what exactly is it? A policy isn’t meant to be a factual, dry document that no-one reads which sits in the Staff Handbook. It is instead a working document that expresses what your preference is as a business in terms of how you would like people to handle their concerns if they ever go through a difficult period in their lives. Contained within the document should be something about how everyday life is full of tension and pressure but stress is the extended or continuous state where demands exceed your ability to respond and the result is diminishing ability to handle it. Everyone has their limitations and it isn’t a personal reflection on someone simply because they reach that ceiling at some stage in their lives. The policy should list symptoms of stress so that people can be helped to identify if this is what they are feeling; typical sources of stress in life so that they can see what they might be experiencing is understandable, and then list or outline what the company would like an individual to do should they be feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope well.
Using the policy is essential and that begins by involving Managers in the decision making for the content of the policy and helping them know how to identify stress in their people and know what to do or say in the eventuality they’ll need to support someone. All this is quite easy to do and involves a facilitated discussion, the subsequent writing of the policy, and a half day programme to help embed it in to the organization thereby bringing it to life rather than leaving it as a dry accompaniment to the usual policies held on file.
2. The second thing you can do is facilitate an environment in which your employees know what to do if they feel overwhelmed or chronically unhappy. Although the policy will already have been briefed to members of staff once that’s completed, the idea is to encourage a Buddy System within the office. Essentially each person ‘buddy’s’ with another so that each can support the other initially thereby probably enabling the reduction of stress because they let off steam, and reducing the number of issues that might end up at the Manager’s door because they may be resolved quicker. There are some gentle guidelines or rules about the Buddy System when you explain it to your Managers, and these are as follows: –
a) Employees should be encouraged to support each other wherever possible but for half hour periods at a time. This ensures that the primary purpose is to download or let off steam but not spend hours chatting about issues
b) Encourage them to offload but then to reach a conclusion or action at the end of the conversation. Questions such as ‘what do you want to do about that’ or ‘how can you tackle this’ result in better resolution of problems because the remedy for stress is almost always taking action. Where there is something people are empowered to actually do rather than just sit and stew about, there is often a soothing or enabling effect. That way they don’t just think about an issue but feel in control.
c) If the issue is beyond the Buddy or helper then the policy should state that you want an employee to bring the issue to a Manager for review or to resolve the problem. Once there, the main aim is to again listen, support, advise and help but ultimately not fix issues for them and definitely point them in a better direction if the subject is outside of your personal experience. Problems such as alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, divorce, grief and extreme aggression are best handled by an expert so have a list of 2 or more counsellors or Psychologists available locally to contact for advice or guidance particularly if you decide to refer an employee to them. Despite the inevitable cost of involving someone external to the business it is actually hugely valuable as the loss of productivity and/ or cost of bringing in an interim Manager or temp is comes off your bottom line if the individual involved goes off sick which might have been avoided.
3. A simple idea that is easy to achieve is for organizations to supply some reading materials and CD’s on stress. I’ve suggested to the company’s I work with that they do this in a really simple way so that people can use them rather like a library system as most companies do not have an intranet site where they can load information for their employees. A recommended reading list; books on stress they ‘take out’ for a week at a time using a note book that records who has taken it, when they borrowed it, and by when they will return it, is very easy to do. Audio CD’s are available on digital download which you could burn to CD (there is one on my website for example), and this too can be used by a number of people that way.
4. If you feel interested in going one step further towards supporting your staff it could be a good idea to train someone to be a Wellbeing Officer. This involves equipping an employee to have the capability to solve or resolve most issues brought to them but from within the business making the use of outside or external help much less likely. It isn’t a full time role but is likely to be more than a few hours a week so using someone who is good with people and training them in coaching and simple supportive tools and techniques, will go a long way towards having a solution of your own.
In conclusion, supporting someone and paying for it might not yet be mandatory in life but given that life can get in the way of an otherwise productive employee, helping them sooner rather than later may result in a win: win for everyone
By Sue Firth, Chartered Occupational Psychologist