Sunday, February 26, 2012

How Does Your Organisation Approach the Subject of Stress?

Raymond Randall, Karina Nielson and Sturle Tyedt (2009) wrote that “in current European legislation there is a clear emphasis on the use of organizational-level interventions (changes in the design, organization, and management of work) as a way of improving working conditions and tackling problems such as work stress. Research has shown that these interventions can have very powerful effects on employee satisfaction and well-being (Bond, Flaxman, & Loivette, 2006; Elo, Ervasti, & Mattila, 2008; Semmer, 2006).

But what is happening in practice? ‘Stress’ can be one of the most misunderstood words in business today – you’ll have people reading this who will claim to thrive on stress, implying that they need stress to perform at their best. Yet it’s not actually stress they strive on – but a challenge, sometimes under pressure – also at a stage when the ‘excited’ individual isn’t stressed in the first place. You’ll have other’s who will feel stressed but will be too scared or nervous to talk about it within their organisation – firstly, not really knowing who they would talk to about it.

Then you’ll have a few, a small few, who work within an organisational culture where the negative impact of stress on an employee’s performance is recognised and ‘open’ internal systems exist to deal with stress related issues. Where these issues can stem from work and/or personal based issues – but where the most common cause of stress, by far, is organisational change.

Of course it doesn’t help that in today’s business world change is the rule not the exception – so preparing for and managing potential ‘stress-related activities’ should be one skill organisational management, at all levels, are equipped to deal with. But although managing change is a core topic of many training and development courses – it still seems to be an area where management and leadership are sadly lacking.

I’m old fashioned, so always suggest to leaders who are about to implement change programmes that they treat others like they would like to be treated themselves – but sometimes this falls on deaf ears. It’s unfortunate that some leaders still prefer to use the gung-ho approach, using power and threats to ‘force’ change on the organisation. In fact it’s my belief that one reason ‘leaders’ use this ‘power’ approach to change is that they are already ‘stressed’ themselves and they find the use of power a ‘release’ from some of the stress – weird but true.  

As Randall, Nielson and Tydet mention “participation plays a major role in well-known stress intervention theories such as the German Health Circles (Aust & Ducki, 2004) and risk management approaches to work stress (e.g. Cox et al., 2000). Participation may help to ensure employee buy-in and commitment and make use of employees’ expertise, thus improving the chances of intervention success (Kompier, Cooper, & Geurts, 2000; Kompier, Geurts, Grundemann, Vink, & Smulders, 1998). Line managers also appear to play an important role in the implementation of many organizational-level stress management interventions (Donaldson-Feilder, Yarker, & Lewis, 2008). Previous research suggests that the line manager is important in the communication processes that underpin and determine the impact of changes (Jimmieson, Terry, & Callan, 2004). Line managers help to keep employees up-to-date about anticipated events, the consequences of change and employees new work roles (Øyum, Kvernberg Andersen, Pettersen Buvik, Knutstad, & Skarholt, 2006). For example, a study on downsizing found that information helped to reduce uncertainty and anxiety, whereas poor communication was related to absenteeism and turnover (Johnson, Bernhagen, Miller, & Allen, 1996),” (p.4).

With many organisations still suffering from the effects of the global meltdown – stress levels are already high in many organisations – where uncertainty about the future doesn’t help. When the change comes - which it has to for many organisations to survive – often it’s the simple lack of communication that causes the employees to start the negative rumours on the corporate grapevine – that just adds to the already underlying stresses within the organisation.

Randall, Nielson and Tydet also highlight how “quantitative measures of readiness for change have been used in a variety of organizational change interventions. Readiness for change is usually conceptualized as containing capability and motivation components that can be measured at an organizational or individual level (Weiner, Amick, & Lee, 2008). Such measures show some, albeit inconsistent, predictive validity in relation to change outcomes (Weiner et al., 2008). To date, these measures have not been used in the evaluation of organizational-level stress management interventions. However, several qualitative process evaluation studies of stress management interventions have discussed the importance of organizational and individual capability and motivation to change (Nytrø et al., 2000; Saksvik et al., 2002). In addition some authors have mentioned the role of employees’ previous experiences of similar interventions in determining their response to subsequent interventions (Saksvik et al., 2002; Theberge, Granzow, Cole, Laing, & The Ergonomic Intervention Evaluation Research Group, 2006),” (p.4).

So what the business world  needs today are executives and managers who are sensitive to the ‘mood’ of the organisation and who can identify ‘stress’ when it appears and develop one-on-one interventions to deal with it. The payback is huge, as you’ll have an organisation focused on change, with a dedicated support system to see the process through. A top team that recognises that stress harms productivity and motivation – and that if they take a transformational approach to change they can ‘lead’ the organisation through the process with ‘everyone’ on board and intact.

It’s organisations with these cultures instilled in the leadership and management functions that will lead the business community through the 21st century.


Randall, R., Nielsen, K. and Tvedt, S. D. (2009). The development of five scales to measure employees' appraisals of organizational-level stress management interventions. Work & Stress; Vol. 23 Issue 1, p.1-23.

1 comment:

  1. You might find it interesting that at the company I am President of, we instituted a wellness program, "Changes that Last a Lifetime" sponsored by Abbott Labs, who partnered with us to bring this to our employees. In short, it is a behavior/lifestyly modification program, open to all employees and their spouses/partners. We had excellent engagement and results were quite stunning relative to the change in our health care spending; especially for chronic disorders like heart disease, diabetes etc. The point to your note is that being self-insured, we, the management, see the health care spending of our employees and their families. Here's issue: 37% of our pharmaceutical spending is on depression and anxiety medication. The single largest expense. In order to meet our commitment to puruse better overall health for our employees we are beginning to search for answers regarding mental wellness as well as physical wellness. It certainly creates a different challenge for a Management team because people will be more reluctant to come forward due, perhaps, to the stigma related to mental issues. Thought you might like to hear our story.