An increasing problem
A recent article shows that work-stress related sickness increased from 55% to 68% last year in the UK. This situation that is likely to be reflected around the world as companies react to the pressure to perform in an increasingly competitive and uncertain world.
Of course this is not without its costs for business. It accounts for around half of all absences and exhaustion makes it hard for employees contribute fully when they are at work. Safety can also be compromised, with accidents more likely to happen when the workforce are tired or disengaged. In our Synthetron MindSet analysis across all the dialogues we run each year, we see more people in a ‘victim’ state – feeling stuck, unable to think creatively or be proactive. A healthy organisation needs its employees to be resilient and in a constructive frame of mind. Not just hanging on in there.
Causes of stress
More than ever in the last years, we saw unhealthy work-stress cropping up in Synthetron discussions. Whatever the sector or topic. In particular employees cite the ‘always on’ culture as problematic. Even their leisure time is no longer relaxing. We have seen evidence that it hits carers (still primarily women) even harder as they try to give children and elderly relatives the attention they need while they are at home – but still have to deal with incoming texts and emails.
Other causes reflect the way business is done these days. They include out of date and cumbersome processes, unnecessary bureaucracy and poor or inconclusive decision making.
In terms of leadership, we are most likely to see concerns that middle managers don’t appreciate staff enough (a thoughtful thank you can go a long way). Senior managers are often seen as disconnected from reality therefore likely to set unrealistic targets.
So what can employers do?
Some companies have taken strong measures to tackle work-stress. Porsche recently joined the swathe of companies considering the introduction of a ban on out of hours emails (see The Daily Telegraph article for more details). And in 2017 the French government pledged to introduce a new law guaranteeing employees the ‘right to disconnect’.
These top down measures are important because they change the nature of the discussion. Like early challenges of unequal pay or unconscious bias they help everybody realise this is a real issue that needs to be considered. Just as important though is to understand what your employees think. Every workplace is different so why not discover the views of your own people in the context of your industry, location and work culture? A largely millennial workforce might be much more comfortable with a blurred work-home-life boundary than one with an older or more traditional employee profile. Though studies seem to find minimal differences between millennials and other generations (see HBR article).
The research can also be a positive intervention
In almost every Synthetron discussion we see this victim state diminish significantly in the course of the one hour discussion. It is a rare opportunity to be able to express your point of view for an hour, free from interruptions or unwanted consequences. In an anonymous space, safe from judgement or mockery. We see some venting on work-stress of course, and then we manage the conversation so that participants don’t get stuck in a moan-fest. But we nearly always see a strong recovery once employees are engaged with the idea that they can contribute to solving the problem. We give our clients a list of the biggest problems and the strongest ideas to tackle them. Just being asked is empowering, being listened to is encouraging and sharing ideas is motivating.