Such a small thing, causing so much stress

First published on 08 June 2020 by Alastair
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For such a tiny, wee thing, the coronavirus hasn’t half caused us a lot of grief.  First and foremost, there are the excess deaths that none of us anticipated, with the concomitant effect of the world economy being spun off its axis.  Fortunately, for most of us, our physical health won’t be seriously affected, it at all.  However, the mental health issues and the stress that are, even as I write, coursing through the bodies and minds of thousands and thousands of people, will be with us for a long time to come.  Seemingly every day we read or hear of thousands being made redundant. Those who are furloughed will be wondering if they are going to have a job to go back to, knowing in many cases that the answer is no.  The elderly, those with abusive partners, the young who can’t play and do all the normal things a growing child should do naturally – these and many more are in a situation that none envisaged or could plan for, and even if we could have planned the reality is still beyond anything we have experienced.

So… how are you and your colleagues coping and what can you do to keep your stress levels on the right side of safe?

Firstly, remind yourself that we shall get through this: we shall, in the end, win and the vast majority will be OK physically. The economy will, eventually, recover and the more we can do to help each other, socially, mentally and economically, the sooner that will be.

Secondly, consider how your workplace can be aligned to minimise stress and pressure.  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) may be much derided as purveyors of footling, nanny-state regulations, but in the current crisis much of what they say is of immense value.

The HSE outlines six areas that can cause stress in the workplace. I have used these as the basis for my own thoughts, as follows:

  • Demanding the impossible – for example, where bosses set deadlines that can’t be met
  • Who is in control – do your managers engage with you and ask for your input or do they simply expect you to do what they tell you?
  • Support – managers need to look out for signs that people are struggling and not assume that if no one raises any concerns then all is well
  • Defining each person’s role - not being clear about expectations means staff can get stressed more easily as they are not sure what they are meant to be doing
  • Relationships – Bosses should not pass the buck, heaping pressures onto the team, nor should they ignore festering issues – these must be resolved quickly so employees know where they stand; and, finally,
  • Changes – if things are changing, and let’s face it, every single business in the country has experienced huge changes, then failure to communicate, explain and carry your staff with you means that they again won’t know what’s expected until the last minute and/or will not carry out your wishes properly.

On top of this, there are things which many companies are having to do just now which exacerbate the potential for stress. For example, many firms have reduced staffing levels due to furloughing or self-isolation.  Changes in government advice and regulations are also causing uncertainty and stress, while for those whose businesses are being ground down, the pressures are unrelenting.  If you own or work in a pub or restaurant, you will be extremely worried about the future.

While there are some statutory requirements for employers, I think that the moral imperative is equally important.  This is where some simple things can make a huge difference.  For example:

  • Communication is vital, but it’s how you do it. Clear, timely, regular and effective communication is what is required. 
  • Introduce flexible working as an ongoing policy wherever possible. One of the key things about this crisis is that it has shown many businesses that bricks and mortar offices are not always essential. This is going to be the new normal.
  • Which leads me to… rotate job roles – give someone who is stressed a break. Encourage everyone to look after each other (if you are already doing that, great, but if not then start now).
  • Which leads me to… keep your ear to the ground. It may not be your legal duty to be aware of someone’s home circumstances, but knowing that a person is feeling low and acting to help them will be noticed and appreciated by colleagues throughout the business.  The cliché that ‘our people are our business’ is frequently just a slogan; this is an opportunity for management to show it really does understand what this means.
  • Take advantage of technology. Most firms think they are on top of this, but the reality is that they only used the computing power available to them to a very limited extent. Properly introduced (and with the necessary training), technology makes employees’ lives simpler and their work more productive.
  • Carry out a stress assessment. Ask your staff what they feel about their work – and act on the results. Where necessary, get professional help for those who need it.
  • Encourage breaks – take five when anyone is feeling the heat.
  • Maintain a sense of purpose, calm and normality wherever possible; when people face a lot of uncertainty, having a clear direction is reassuring.
  • Help staff stay positive by recognising the situation, acknowledging what staff are managing to achieve and providing encouragement and celebrating success
  • Be mindful of anyone who has had to adapt their workplace/workstyle and hours due to the crisis: consider teaming them up with a more experienced member of staff and make sure they get any training required.
  • Once work is finished make sure that people go home on time, after they have asked their colleagues if they need any help. The days of working excessive hours to show that you are committed are over.

It’s not easy and it’s not going to be easy over the next few months and probably the next few years.  However, that’s not an excuse to marginalise anyone who has stress or mental health problems.  If you are in any doubt, get professional, medical advice.

In my next blog, I’m going to look at the problems of home working and how they too can lead to stress.

Julie Downie, Accounts Manager, M&S Accountancy and Taxation

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