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3 tips to manage employees’ workplace stress

28 Mar 2023

The University of Manchester’s Dr Marina Boulos discusses the importance of management and organisational interventions to address employees’ work-related stress.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Earning a living can be stressful. Whether it’s time constraints, difficult colleagues, a lack of autonomy, or an unreasonable workload, it’s hard to think of a job that doesn’t come with a certain amount of pressure.

This can have a negative impact on a person’s mental and physical health, and is a major cause of long-term absence from work.

An excessive level of stress is bad for people, and it’s also bad for the organisations they work for.

Often though, the responsibility for managing stress is left with the employee. Employers tend to think their role lies in helping staff better manage their own individual situations, perhaps by changing their own behaviour or perceptions.

This may involve things like time management workshops or mindfulness classes – ideas directed at the individual with the aim of enabling them to be better at their job.

But these kinds of interventions place the burden of ultimate responsibility on the employee. And in doing so, organisations feel less obliged to alter the stressful environment by increasing resources, reviewing job descriptions or improving manager training.

‘It is impossible to tackle the causes of stress if an organisation doesn’t know what they are’

To get an alternative view, I spoke to employees about their experiences of attempts to reduce stress levels in the workplace. And here are three things your organisation could actually do for you to reduce work-related stress.

Identify stress points

It is impossible to tackle the causes of stress if an organisation doesn’t know what they are.

During my research, participants spoke of the importance of initiating and maintaining dialogue between various groups including employees, trade unions, human resources and senior management.

This can be done by regular ‘pulse checking’, using surveys or one-to-one reviews and a continual observation of staff wellbeing.

One housing association employee told me that at their work place, “the union was hammering on the door to [hold] a stress survey”. She added: “[Management] know it’s a top issue.”

Train managers

My research suggests that the role of managers is a key part of employee wellbeing. Managers tend to be the ones in charge of setting deadlines, communicating expectations and dealing with employees’ successes and failures.

Due to their crucial role, it is vital that any employee with managerial responsibilities receives proper training.

This could cover aspects of making deadlines reasonable, being educated on the various help mechanisms that the organisation has in place for their employees and tools to help managers identify stress in their teams.

Management training can – and should – look different in every organisation and department due to their unique qualities and challenges.

One major management quality that was underestimated (but considered by many to be invaluable) was compassion. Although some of my participants had very demanding jobs and personal circumstances, having a compassionate and well-informed manager made all the difference to their day-to-day lives.

Someone who works in higher education commented: “Management skills are not just about delegating the work – [they are about] building a team, recognising when people are struggling, and [being able] to approach that. It’s really personal.”

Another said: “Some managers can be very supportive and understanding, but some managers would just say: ‘Do this, and I want it done today.’”

And one respondent noted: “I think I’ve got the best manager going. She’s not only my manager, she’s my friend as well, and that’s nice. I can talk to her.”

Compassionate management can be as simple as asking how an employee is doing, properly listening to them, and perhaps a small gesture like having a cup of coffee together.

It sounds simple, but compassion towards employees and colleagues tends to depend on individual behaviour rather than being something that is encouraged systematically at an organisational level.

‘If nobody knows who is in charge of a particular aspect of employee wellbeing, it is unlikely to be properly addressed’

Make someone responsible

When I asked who was responsible for managing stress in an organisation, many of the people I spoke to gave conflicting answers. Some (after much thought) said it was the HR department, while others (including a member of an HR department) said it was occupational health professionals.

A housing association employee described a situation where “there’s lots of work to be done [around stress] but no one is leading on it, no one is joining it up”. They added: “It’s all been very hit and miss.”

The lack of clarity is an obvious cause for concern. If nobody knows who is in charge of a particular aspect of employee wellbeing, it is unlikely to be properly addressed.

There needs to be clarity – and accountability – around who is responsible for managing stress, so that initiatives can be put in place, and so that people know where to turn when they need help.

The Conversation

By Dr Marina Boulos

Dr Marina Boulos is a lecturer in human resource management in the University of Manchester. She is passionate about creating healthier workplaces for employees. Her research focuses on stress management and prevention techniques in the workplace.

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