On the road blog – St. Lois to Philadelphia – Stress

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Stress in the workplace

Working with companies all over the world, and travelling from one continent to the other I often witness unhappy people, and recently it seems there are more and more unhappy people walking around and walking into my classroom.

So I was recently reading a number of surveys that analysed stress and stress related illnesses in the business world today; I was shocked to read a study done in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive had found that the total number of working days lost due to stress and anxiety in 2015/16 was 11.7 million days in the UK alone. This equated to an average of 23.9 days lost per company, or 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. Another study, by the American Psychological Association (APA), found that the two most common stressors among those surveyed were work and money, and the incidence of stress often resulted in irritability, anger, nervousness, and anxiousness, all behaviours that can cause tension when brought home after work. The jobs that are common across all studies are; healthcare workers; teaching professionals; business, media and public service professionals, who all show higher levels of stress compared to any other job.

 On further reading the predominant cause of work related stress has been identified as workload, in particular tight deadlines, too much work or too much pressure or responsibility. Other factors identified included a lack of managerial support, organisational changes at work, violence and role uncertainty, lack of clarity about their job or uncertainty of what they were meant to do.

I come across all of these issues in the work I do with companies across the globe and what this tells me is that our organisational leadership is missing the point when it comes to corporate performance and managing people. The truth is that in the business world we live in, change is becoming the norm. Multiple generations in the workforce at the same time, and an increased access to information, communication and innovation means that organisations need to adapt quickly to the changing demands of both their customers and workforces. Gone are the days of a thirty year career plan, when a millennial only wants to work for your organisation for two years and even then they need a parallel role with another business, or even a business of their own.

Traditional methods of leadership, and organisational structure do not survive in this environment. And whilst many of the organisations I work with are “generous” in their desire to support and develop their people, they are less than “genuine” in their recognition that it’s at the senior leadership level that the development needs to start. Typically leaders have “grown” into their role, and as such brought with them many years of experience in understanding organisational design, value chain’s and process/project management. The challenge is that these approaches rely on static thinking, root cause analysis and continuous improvement based on removing waste and increasing speed and throughput.

Business today however relies more on people than it ever has, and people are not as predictable as machines. Root cause analysis whilst great for identifying and resolving specific problems, doesn’t help motivate an individual to improve their performance. I believe our senior leadership has to change and to once again use a phrase from positive psychologist Shaun Achor, Leadership needs to “reverse the model of success” and rather than drive home the “work harder approach” understand that a happy workforce, a committed workforce works far harder and is more productive than a “stressed workforce”.

This doesn’t mean that just being happy is the answer, and as one of my learners said this week, “does that mean I just need to be content with my job?”

In the context of positive psychology happiness is a work ethic not just a feeling. If you enjoy what you do, if you see purpose in what you do, if you want to come to work then all of the emotional barriers to your success are removed, and you stop getting in the way of your performance.

Now of course this isn’t a new concept, in fact Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham in the late 60’s identified that individuals with a clear set of goals and an understanding of the value they bring to an organisation will be far more productive than workers who don’t have either of these. Going even further back to the early 50’s  Fredrick Herzberg recognised that poor management, poor processes and inconsistent policies would demotivate individuals and hinder their performance and the overall performance of the company.

So what do leaders do with this information? They bring trainers into their organisation to train their staff, or their first or even second line management on how they should transfer the corporate values to their teams and individuals. Which as I stated earlier is “generous” in that it costs money and takes time out of the office.

However when learners return and the impact is minimal what then?

In the mid 80’s Broad and Newstrom identified that the most important person in transferring the learning from a classroom into change in the workplace is not the individual, but their leader.

If the working environment doesn’t embrace learning from the top down, and if leaders at the very top do not engage in the same learning as their subordinates, and then role model the behaviours, mantra’s and approaches then it is very difficult for the people within the organisation to develop, grow and manage the challenges that face them every day.

Leadership has to take the “lead” in developing an environment that cultivates positive psychology, this means focusing on the people as part of the system and not the tools of the system.

As a leader we do not get a day off, we have to be performing at our best every day, and every interaction with our people engrains our corporate culture.

Every leader should ask themselves “what is my brand?” “what do people say when I walk out of the room”. And then you should go and ask them; open and honest feedback from your peers and subordinates is the best way you can develop.

Leaders should be passionate about their own development and the development of others. Role model the “happy work ethic” maintain an interest in your own development and encourage others to do the same.

Leaders should recognise the holistic nature of their teams, work life balance is not just about going home early and seeing the children. With a multi-cultural, and multi-generational workforce the role of a leader to understand the individual needs of their team is key to their success.

Leaders should embrace challenge and change with excitement and enthusiasm. Maintain the curiosity of a child and have the energy to adapt yourself and focus on outcomes and not obstacles.

Leaders should be energised and have the ability to energise others. If we balance our lives, become more self-aware and understand our own emotional and physical rhythms we can maintain our energy and passion for the work that we do, this becomes contagious and people will be drawn to work in a similar manner.

Finally, just remember anger, frustration, stress and anxiety are all a choice; we cannot stop the emotions that are triggered by an event but we can, with the right energy and focus decide how we manage those emotions to mitigate the impact of the ones that do not help us, and may even damage us. We can let them go and focus on the positive outcome we want. This requires the development of inner strength, not outer toughness. And when we do it, and when we role model happiness as a route to success we open the door to our people embracing it, and ultimately to our organisations improved performance.

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