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Exploring how positive management of relationships and change in organisations can affect stress in the workplace.

September 16, 2018

An organisational culture that fosters a positive and dynamic (flexible) workplace environment, will have improved employee-organisation relationships and will be more able to cope with periods of organisational change that may pose a significant challenge for other organisations, thereby reducing workplace stress.

 

Stress is a survival instinct humans have, it could be defined as interaction between a person and a situation; expanding this further; the psychological and physical state resulting when an individual’s resources do not match that of the demands and pressures of a situation they find themselves in. We can from this, extract that Stress is an exclusive function, one that has unique parameters to each one of us and is a result of our ableness to cope with differing situations. When applied to the workplace, there are many places where stress can become a problem and we know that stress is one of the main reasons for taking time off work in the United Kingdom, in fact in 2016, 37% of work related ill health cases were put down to workplace stress. Furthermore, according to the Health and Safety Executives (HSE) recent 2016 survey; there were 0.5 million workers suffering from work related stress in the UK and 11.7 million working days were lost because of workplace stress; around 24 days per case were lost on average with just under 50% of all sick days taken being put down to workplace stress. This time off for treatment or for sick days is costing organisations more than £5.2 billion.

 

Workplace stress is without doubt a significant challenge facing organisations across the world and in the UK it is not getting any brighter even with new policies and better understanding of factors affecting stress. The next question following on from the above statistics could be, what are those factors that are causing so many employees to be taking time off work or seeking treatment for workplace stress?

 

According to the HSE’s recent survey the main factors causing workplace stress are associated with significant workload pressure (Worrall & Cooper, 2006) and a lack of managerial support. Moreover, employees are said to be receiving tighter deadlines with too much pressure and

responsibility on them to meet targets and alongside this, organisations are going through increased periods of significant organisational changes that are causing incredible uncertainty and as a result we are seeing increased levels of violent behaviour in the workplace.

 

The UK National Work Stress Network released an information guide in which they detailed what workplace stress is, how is manifests itself and what you can do to tackle it. Most importantly they identified several key areas of stress and explained the six stress management

standards that HSE introduced in 2004, these standards came as a less formal way of improving the way that employers manage their workplace stress levels instead of the creating legislation.

 

Having defined stress and briefly explored some relevant statistics and factors affecting workplace stress, lets discuss the two “stressor areas”, Relationships and Change.

 

Workplace relationships are often cited as a prime reason for suffering from stressful periods at work and even in some cases lead to more serious long term physiological or psychological instability or damage. Positive relations between managers and workers and between managers themselves is crucial to achieve high productivity and a motivated workforce with limited stress, it should also be an aim for organisations as fostering a positive and motivational environment is something we know increases efficiency and productivity when done in the best way for the organisation and decreases the likelihood of having stressed workers.

 

Feuds between co-workers may seem trivial at times and sometimes they may be, however workplace conflict can lead to a deeply divided and unstable team that doesn’t meet its targets and isn’t productive, it can also cause significant amounts of stress for workers that may lead to a high rate of sick leave or even staff turnover, thereby costing the organisation heavily. It is important to note however that everybody can have fluctuations in mood or mental state and that it should be expected that workers may have “off days” or periods when the work may be more stressful than usual naturally.

 

Workplace bullying is another cause of stress and can lead to extremely serious and damaging health problems. According to Hoel, Rayner, & Cooper (1999), workplace bullying has led to individuals suffering from anxiety, depression and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the worst cases, there have been reports of suicides relating to workplace distress, this is clearly a major concern for organisations and demonstrates the absolute importance of positive workplace relationships to decrease the likelihood of stress on workers.

 

The idea that poor relationships in the workplace can cause stress is not a new one, stress associated with poor workplace relationships is commonplace in organisations. The number of sexual harassment claims has gone up, as has the number of workers filing grievances against their managers for inappropriate conduct or aggressive behaviour, these claims involve a distressed individual who has no doubt had their work negatively impacted by the stress caused by these issues/actions. But to completely paint the picture, you should understand, as mentioned previously, the exclusive and unique nature of stress. Everybody has a slightly or significantly different reaction to a situation and every situation may have a slightly or significantly different causation. This provides the difficulty in just stepping in and solving the problem, it also helps to explain the effects of all the stress caused and the stressors causing it. One of the major effects of relationship stress existing in the workplace is that it doesn’t just effect the relationship and stress level of the individuals directly involved, it also has an impact on the environment surrounding the situation and the other individuals in that environment. If you have an employee having a challenging relationship with their line manager and this has boiled over into an aggressive dispute then the entire team managed by that person will be effected by that one dispute, even though the issue has nothing to do with them. This will therefore effect their work and their productivity and may even cause another dispute with the manager or within the team that leads to more stress in the workplace. The cycle may then repeat itself, creating a further problem, unhealthy, demotivated and negative environment, certainly not conducive to successful working. It is clear from this example, how there is a helix effect downwards once one stressor or stressful event occurs that then causes further negative effects. Before organisations have had the chance to identify and rectify the situation, they have an entire workforce effected by stress and poor relations that could render the team ineffective and unmanageable or at the very least costly to rectify.

 

In addition to this “stressor area”, organisations also have another challenging stressor to contend with; change. In the modern commercial environment, it is part and parcel of running an organisation to encounter the need to make changes. However, the need for change doesn’t always reflect the appetite for it and organisations often come up against strong resistance to changes. Change is a major source of stress for both senior managers all the way through to their workers, again though, it effects everybody differently. Change is something that happens both tangibly and intangibly; for example, an organisation is going through a merger and it has been decided that they will shut down all current offices and move into a new one. Both old organisations now need to manage a significant change process that will cause severe disruption and probably significant stress to its workers and probably result in job losses. This change has been caused by necessity and cannot be changed or disputed and so the challenge is to manage it as effectively as possible. Understanding your employee’s capabilities and utilising and communicating as much as possible is the key to reducing the chances of severe stress. We know that a key cause of stress during an organisational transformation comes from not knowing what’s happening because of a lack of clear and useful communication, workers

want to know where they stand and what’s going on because people build an identity within an organisation and change threatens that identity, according to a study by Chreim (2005), individuals can choose once they are aware of a change and understand it, to support it and  become part of the change or we have discovered from further studies, including Clarke et al in 2009, individuals can find the change threatening and become stressed by it as its challenging their identity. It’s crucial to know your change, how it could affect your workers and how you’re going to lead them through the change; understanding the scale of your change will then allow you to identify the most effective leadership style or combination of styles for successful change in the organisation. Being able to respond quickly to the concerns or attitude shifts of workers and take them on a journey through the change will enable you to better understand your organisation as well as the change its going through, you may even be able to identify problem areas that have been holding you back and therefore be able to develop new ways of working that improve efficiency and effectiveness and reduce the stress probability as a result.

 

Clearly change can cause stress amongst workers and managers, and the effects of this stress can cause productivity to fall, amongst other impacts. According to Michael D Topf in the article “Managing Change and Stress”, organisations should be concerned with monitoring and reducing fear amongst workers. The article states that fear of change is something to be expected and it the driving force behind the negative behaviour or reactions to change. Workers feel emotional because they fear the future and suffer from a perceived sense of stress. Essentially, they are creating a reason to be stressed, which then makes them stressed, in addition to this, the article also states that sometimes the change can cause job losses and reorganisation resulting in more responsibility for workers that and cause guilt. This is an interesting concept; if you give a worker increased responsibility post change, they may feel guilty or embarrassed at the fact they got through and others didn’t, this can cause significant stress and the effect is that their behaviour and resulting work may be no better and could potentially be worse than pre change. This demonstrates why positive change management is a vital factor in reducing stress in the workplace, it has an impact on all corners of the organisation and feeds through into all the other 5 “Stressor areas” with the main point to achieve success from a change being your understanding of your workforce and the change and the quality of your communication.

 

These are two incredibly important areas for consideration and that both can cause stress in the workplace when not positively managed or understood. A positive and dynamic approach to workplace relationships would improve the organisations outlook and environment as well as reduce stress levels as the evidence from all studies used shows that individuals suffer from significant stress when involved in poor relationships that negatively effects their work, taking a less controlling standpoint and understanding why the relationship might be that way and working to improve it positively will in turn provide breathing space for workers and develop a more supportive environment where you should see a reduction in stress levels. In addition to this, a positive approach to change in the workplace would reduce stress, furthermore, the attitude and understanding of workers by the leaders is crucial to being able to adapt and lead positive and effective change in an organisation. Acknowledging the stress caused by fear of change and the resulting effect of that stress will allow organisations to adapt and move forward because they have a grip on how the organisation operates and how workers behave and feel about change. Moreover, being able position the change as a positive step for the organisation and create a sense of a new and improved identity and better job roles will reduce the stress felt by workers and seek to decrease the chances of workers feeling guilty if they are still employed post change. Stress is a human reaction to situations and happens to everyone; you will never be able to change that or stop stress from occurring, but a positive view of both relationships and change and the flexible management of them will ensure that workers feel supported and if challenges do arise, they perceive them to be less stressful than if negatively

 

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