What if organisations addressed the causes of stress?

When Harvard Business School and Standford’s Graduate School came together to undertake research into work based stress, they discovered that work stressors were killing 120,000 people annually. Causes were long hours, economic insecurity at lower levels of organisations exacerbated by uncertainty over contracts and low pay. In the UK we struggle with many of the same issues and high household debt only ends up putting added pressure on workers to keep their job no matter what. The CIPD’s 2014 Absence Management Survey found that 40% of employers are seeing an increase in reported mental health problems and that mental well being among employees has worsened over the past few years. Twenty five percent of employers cite mental ill-health as the biggest single cause of long-term absence.

“Work is more demanding: we feel a lack of control.”

Whilst work place stress alone is rarely the cause of poor mental health, work can make a difficult situation far worse. Many enlightened organisations have employee assistance or well being programmes. Such initiatives include resilience programmes, flexible working or the opportunity to work from home.However, the causes of stress are often:

  • badly designed jobs
  • unrealistic deadlines
  • poor line managers
  • inadequate communication
  • anxiety about tenure
  • relentless (and seemingly pointless) change
  • cultures that don’t encourage opennesss

Therefore there is a potential mismatch between the causes of workplace stress and the solutions proposed.

Design around people’s strengths

Good quality job design which clarifies what is expected of individuals by when for what purpose helps alleviate ambiguity and enables an individual to ‘self manage’ their own contribution. Increasing autonomy increases intrinsic motivation and a sense of control which is critical to good mental health.

In addition, designing jobs around an individual’s strengths increases well being, self confidence and self efficacy (by feeling confident and able to take on a task). Such job crafting not only leads to better levels of well being but also higher levels of performance.

Train managers in meaning and purpose

The opportunity to participate in meaningful work is the number one factor individuals are looking for in a job. Meaningful work is work that is significant, positive and purposeful – it is aligned with an individual’s values and what is important to them. Meaningful work is also associated with higher levels of well being. Managers who understand this and are able to help staff see how their work plays a part in the organisation’s overall purpose will give staff a sense of place within the organisation, increase commitment and reduce anxiety and restlessness.

Encourage openness and autonomy

Back to job design and training, but creating a climate which encourages open dialogue about mental health problems is critical to creating an authentic organisation where individuals are respected for their contributions. Regular time limited ‘team huddles’ where individuals are encouraged to speak openly about any or all their concerns is a great starting point, with or without their manager present.