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Stress - Some Of It Is Good - Too Much Can Cost You A Lot

Aug 17, 2007
Some of us thrive on a bit of pressure - it can improve our performance because that's the way we're designed. However, too much over an extended time can take its toll.

In Victoria, 8% of all workers' compensation claims are stress related - and these cost double the amount of other claims. The total cost in Australia for stress related workers' compensation is estimated to be $200 million every year. Add to this sick leave, low productivity, staff turnover and other consequences of people being stressed and the costs start to mount up.

BUPA, the UK's leading provider of private health care insurance, hospitals and health care services has researched this area and tell us the leading causes of workplace stress are:

Lack of control over work
Excessive time pressures
Excessive or inflexible working hours
Too much or too little work or responsibility
Confusion about duties and responsibilities
Lack of job variety and interest
Inadequate training and possibilities for learning new skills
Poor work/life balance
Difficult relationships at work
Lack of support and lack of contact with colleagues
Organizational confusion, restructuring, job change
Uncertainty over job prospects

How much control, as employers and managers do we have over these factors? Quite a bit it would seem. Many of these factors relate to job design and communicating expectations - these are probably within the control of managers.

Job Design
Designing jobs can be done effectively if a process is followed that links the objectives of the organization to the individual's outputs. Involving the individuals in this process will greatly enhance the results.

Even if you currently have a structure that you feel doesn't need reorganizing or jobs that don't need redesigning, going through this process will have benefits and may well be good insurance against the unhealthy growth of stress in the workplace.

We have found the most beneficial method of defining jobs is to work with current job holders to document their own jobs in terms of Key Result Areas (KRAs) ie the outputs from their jobs . With each of these they also define how these are measured.

To get to this stage firstly they examine the total output of the organization and then break that down to identify what their division or department contributes, then their work area and down to their particular job. This way they see and understand the linkage between what they do and the business outcomes.

This method has many advantages.

By having the job holders themselves involved in the analysis of their work they are able to voice their views over what is too much work or too few hours, what is challenging and interesting work and what is not.

The work may still have to be done but by allowing their views to be heard provides them with a sense of being part of the decision making rather than just victims. They will also have ideas on how best to manage the challenges.

Worthwhile work
If people can see the link between their efforts and the business results they can see that it is worthwhile - rather than endless effort for no obvious reason.

Control over their work
If they are identifying the KRAs they can see that these are the things that matter. In this way they can structure their activities and priorities to focus on those rather than get bogged down in superfluous tasks.

There is always plenty of work but having clear priorities and the ability to make choices is a definite stress reducer.

Measuring the KRAs
By having a measure against each KRA they can monitor their own performance. The measure provides a clear idea of what success looks like and there can be a sense of achievement in getting close to or exceeding it.

Communication - in both directions is a function of good management. Managers need to be trained to identify what is required, how to communicate it and how to identify the needs of the employees.

As a simple rule of thumb remembering to check off the "3 As" in communication is worthwhile:

Who is Affected?
Whose Assistance is required?
Whose Authority is required?

Knowing what is happening and why is much less stressful than not knowing. In the absence of communication people tend to make things up and this can be very stressful.

Success will only come when employees are delivering what is required and are satisfied doing it. If they are not satisfied it is not sustainable. The consequences may be stress, resignations or just plain disgruntled, unproductive workers.

Managers need to know their staff - what interests them, what they like, what they don't like. By getting close to them any issues can be identified quickly and nipped in the bud.

So, in reviewing the causes of stress and our possible solutions, we see that there is much within our control - involving people in defining their jobs and building management skills.

The good news is you can start gradually working on these areas or you can move quickly with a full blown program. Those who take no action will pay the cost.
About the Author
Paul Phillips is a Director of Horizon Management Group; a specialist human resource management consulting firm. He has over 30 years experience in HR and, while based in Australia, has worked in a number of overseas locations. www.horizonmg.com
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