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Stress at work: five core sources and how HR can help

Published 8th November 2017 by Investors in People
Stress in the workplace

Employees experience two types of stress: stress from their personal lives that leaks into the workplace and stress created by and in the workplace.

It’s hard to tackle the former and easier to tackle the latter. There’s also a strong business imperative for doing so, as stress contributes to reduced productivity, reduced engagement and higher absence.

To help HR take action, we’ve identified five core sources of stress in the workplace and ways to manage them.

Uncertainty over focus and priorities

If employees do not know what they are ultimately working towards - or what the organisation considers ‘good’ to look like for each job role - they can’t be sure they’re doing the right thing at the right time.

This uncertainty isn’t good: research suggests that uncertainty creates a ‘threat’ response in the brain that raises stress level and makes it harder to focus. The less that employees are clear on what they should be doing, how long they should be doing it and when they should be doing it, the more uncertainty is created.

HR’s main task in tackling this is facilitating the cascading down of organisational goals to the individual: this includes helping senior leaders set goals that can be viably cascaded, training all managerial levels on how to cascade effectively and empowering staff to craft their own job roles so they can meet individual KPIs in ways that suit them.

Career development is good for everyone, but we tend to assume that everyone wants upward career development all the time. Of course, this is not true.

Misguided organisational understanding of high performance

Organisations are understandably looking to drive performance and this does not need to increase employee stress; instead, it’s an incorrect understanding of high performance that leads to higher stress.

When organisations think high performance involves being ‘always-on,’ sleeping less and working more, being in flight-or-fight mode and avoiding periods of recuperation, the drive for higher performance will increase stress and lead to burnout.

HR’s job is to create cultural change, educating leaders and employees on what actually leads to high performance. Luckily, the conditions that lead to higher performance - such as sufficient sleep and letting your ideas incubate - do not need to increase stress.

This task may get easier for HR due to a concurrent societal shift that places value on wellbeing and recuperation in driving performance. Arianna Huffington, for example, thinks we’re in the middle of a “sleep revolution.”

Rigidity over working patterns

When employees must be in the office by 9am, no exceptions, this will raise stress levels when a delay happens, for example due to children being ill or public transport running late.

The same is due for lunch breaks: a meeting at the bank that overruns turns from an easy-to-fix problem (“I’ll make up the time later” to a source of uncertainty and stress (“Everyone will be staring at me! And my boss will tell me off”) if there is no flexibility over working patterns.

HR’s role is in facilitating an organisation-wide flexible working policy that works for different individuals, teams and job roles and helping line managers co-create a mutually-beneficial flexible working arrangement with each employee.

Mistimed career development (or lack thereof)

Career development is good for everyone, but we tend to assume that everyone wants upward career development all the time. Of course, this is not true.

Career development that happens at the right time is great. But not when it happens at the wrong time: this can include over-promotion (a promotion when the person isn’t ready), under-promotion (a lack of promotion when the person feels capable) or an unfortunately-timed promotion due to, for example, significant life changes like illness.

HR’s job is to create cultural change, educating leaders and employees on what actually leads to high performance.

Understanding everyone’s individual needs is crucial here, so HR must help support line managers to have the right conversations with employees. Once this happens, the relevant information can be fed up to influence succession planning strategies so that career development happens at a time that suits all parties.

Lack of skills to manage relationships

This is a very broad category; we have peer relationships at work, relationships with our direct reports, with our managers, with senior leaders, with team members and with colleagues in cross-functional teams.

Stress can come about when we don’t have the skills to manage these relationships effectively: with regard to relationships with our direct reports, we may be unable to delegate effectively, which increases our workload and may increase our stress levels.

When it comes to relationships with team members, we may not be able to direct conflict towards better decision-making, instead allowing it to cause negative friction that undermines the relationship and our overall satisfaction at work.

HR has multiple roles to play here: firstly, to facilitate better line management skills, to enable better relationships with direct reports. Secondly, to deal with unconscious biases and promote diversity to encourage the development of empathy, acceptance and celebration of difference.

Thirdly, to educate employees on team dynamics so they understand that conflict arises naturally in healthy teams, and that it just needs to be consciously directed in order to drive bonding and better decision-making.