Posts Tagged ‘managing stress’

Tackling Workplace Stress Head On

September 9, 2011

Gerard O’ Hanlon is a Director at Stredia, a company which provides software tools and consultancy services to identify and measure the causes of stress within the workplace, and provide measures and interventions to eliminate or reduce them.

In this week’s guest blog, he underlines some of the key factors in workplace stress. Over to you Gerard!

When Anna asked me to write a piece on workplace stress for the Yara blog I immediately said yes: it’s a great opportunity to get to share my thoughts with the forward-thinking professionals who work with Yara to improve the people management skills of their organisations. Then came the anxiety! What if I’m not up to the high standard that is usual in the blog? What am I going to say to HR professionals that they don’t already know about workplace stress? I began to feel a little … well .. stressed. To eliminate this stressful situation I had two options either write the blog or tell Anna that I couldn’t… So here it is.


Identify the signs early on

We all know the signs of stress, don’t we? It’s important to be able to recognise the early symptoms, and to take action before stress becomes a real problem.

Symptoms include nervous habits, poor concentration, poor memory retention, performance dip, missed deadlines, uncharacteristic errors, emotional outbursts, anger, tantrums, loss of appetite, violent or anti-social behaviour,  sleep difficulties, alcohol or drug abuse.

Become self aware (or listen to what your friends, family and colleagues are telling you) and learn to recognise these signs as soon as they occur.


Know what causes stress

Can we list all the causes of these symptoms? They’ll vary from person to person.

One teacher we were working with explained it very simply.  When she was asked, “what causes you stress at work?” she  replied, “Nothing causes me stress at work”. Then she paused and said, “but everything causes me stress at work! It’s all those small things that seem to go wrong all at once”.

Be aware of ‘flashpoints’ that cause stress and develop your management skills to eliminate or reduce these. If you cannot eliminate or reduce flashpoints then you will need to develop coping strategies for yourself and your staff, and where possible to plan ahead for when you know times may be particularly challenging.

Don’t underestimate the impact on business

Stress has a high human cost, and its impact on business is hugely significant.

In the UK over 13 million working days are lost every year because of stress.

UK HSE statistics suggest that stress-related costs to UK employers are in the region of £700m every year, and the cost of stress to society is estimated at £7bn per year.

Stress is believed to trigger 70% of visits to doctors, and 85% of serious illnesses (UK HSE stress statistics).

It’s little short of a silent epidemic. And yet many companies do little to actively avoid it and to counteract its effects, until it becomes too late.

Know the law … and best practice

Stress caused at work provides a serious risk of litigation for employers and organisations, carrying significant liabilities for damages, bad publicity and loss of reputation. Dealing with stress-related claims also consumes vast amounts of management time. The cost of a stress claim counting time and money can easily reach £200,000 and more.

Of course we cannot be everywhere all the time to monitor these causes: we have to trust our line managers to be able to identify and address issues. But line managers have responsibility for delivering performance on a day to day basis and identifying and addressing stress might not be high on their list of priorities.

Employers should aim to provide a stress-free work environment, and recognise where the causes of stress may become a problem for staff. Critically, they MUST take action to reduce the causes of stress, and not merely expect people to treat the symptoms.

Stress in the workplace reduces productivity, increases management pressures, and makes people ill in many ways, evidence of which is still increasing. Workplace stress affects the performance of the brain, including functions of work performance: memory, concentration, and learning.

By using the risk management methodology recommended by the HSE in their stress management standards, HR and H&S managers can quickly identify patterns of management that increase the chances of stress occurring in the workplace and develop simple strategies to address them.

At Stredia we like to get managers and staff to think about the things at work that can cause frustration and annoyance, why? Because it is constant frustration and annoyance that can lead to stress happening at work.  When using the management standards, by presenting the information collected intelligently, we can help managers and staff identify these frustrations and develop and prioritise interventions.

Mind your language

What we’ve found is that there is a language issue around the whole area of stress. Whilst employers should create a stress free environment, there will still be pressures, frictions and frustrations, and not all of these are always universally bad.

The Stredia ethos in dealing with stress is to remove the word from the employees vocabulary, always defining specifics such as those mentioned above and talking about pressure, friction, frustration, and so on.

Identifying and addressing the tipping point at which these become unsustainable stress lies at the heart of the matter.

Little things can make a big difference

If you are suffering from stress or you know anyone who is, here are short term interventions you can put into practice. Bear in mind, though, that addressing the CAUSES of workplace stress is going to be the key factor for lasting success.

• Deep breathing is a well known relaxation technique. Breath in through your nose slowly and deeply as you count to 4, then breath out slowly through your mouth as you count to 6 – repeat this three times. As you get used to this deep breathing you can increase the repetitions to 5 times, then 7 times; be careful not to overdo it at the start as you could become light-headed.

• One of the best and simplest interventions is humour, smiling in the face of adversity and retaining a sense of perspective. This is another reason I like working with Yara: there is always a vibrant, good-humoured atmosphere during training.

• Get some exercise. There’s a significant body of research that links exercise with stress reduction. You don’t have to take up a sport or become competitive, just do something to get moving. Yoga is particularly good for stress management – or it might mean simply going for a walk.

• Make sure you take a lunch break AWAY from your desk, and give yourself short breaks from time to time. I have a personal thought here for all of you smokers out there: it’s as much the getting away from your desk that helps calm you as the cigarette itself! Just a thought …

• Keep a good supply of water near to hand so that you can keep yourself hydrated; it will help stop you from getting tired and cranky, and aids brain function.

• Much research has been carried out on the impact of music. Develop a playlist of relaxing music on your ipod or phone.

• Learn to say ‘no’. Don’t take too much on, as this can lead to overwork, time pressures, and stress.

There are lots of exercises available to help reduce personal stress and build up resilience. But the best way to manage stress is to prevent it from developing in the first place. Above all, it’s vital to recognise it and address it rather than trying to struggle on. If you know anyone at your workplace that should be using these exercises because of their work environment or workload, then your organisation is causing stress at work.

At the end of the day, if someone was being PHYSICALLY injured at work, you wouldn’t just teach them how to put up with it, or to become more resilient. You’d take serious measures to stop it happening. If you’re not taking the causes of stress at work seriously right now, it’s time to do that.


7 Leadership skills that EVERYONE should develop – number 5: manage stress and maintain wellbeing

July 17, 2011

Inevitably, leaders shoulder a lot of responsibility for the departments, businesses and organisations that they oversee. This does NOT mean, though, that neglecting your own health wellbeing and soldiering on regardless is a viable option: you’re no use to anyone as a stressed out, burnt out wreck who’s running on empty.

So here are 5 things to consider as you manage your own state of mind and wellbeing. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to stop and think about this – if that’s the case, you need to MAKE time!

1) Recognise the signs
Working under pressure is a little bit like the old ‘boiling frog’ metaphor: you gradually become more and more pressured until suddenly you develop a stress related illness.

It’s important to be able to distinguish between what, for you, is an appropriate and productive level of pressure….and what becomes panic or extreme stress where you might be appearing to function, but you know yourself you’re not making quality decisions, and are becoming irritable or obsessive.

Think carefully: when you start to feel stressed – WHERE physically do you feel stressed? Prickly scalp? Knotted stomach? Tense shoulders? Where?

Begin to recognise your own physical symptoms and consciously name them. Recognising and acknowledging these early signs is a key stage in being able to address them.

If you’ve been feeling very pressured, have a look at one of the many stress related websites (like ) to check out the symptoms of stress and compare yourself against them. If you want to be proactive about minimising stress levels within your organisation, have a look at, and speak to Gerard O’ Hanlon there.

Recognise also whether you’re going through a period of short term stress which you can manage and where’s there’s light at the end of the tunnel….or whether the pressures are long term with no end in sight.  The latter requires urgent action.

2) Re-evaluate what’s important
Find a pen and paper and make a list of the ten things that are most important to you. ‘Family’ can count as 1, rather than naming them individually, and the list can be in any order you like.

Be very honest with yourself here. Some of these things might be factors like ‘the need for recognition’ or ‘the need to be wealthier than my peers’ and so on – things that you might not want others to know.

Look at your list, and cross off 3 things which aren’t quite so important as the rest.

Of the remaining things on the list, cross off a further 2 that don’t mean as much to you as the others.

Of the 4 items you have left, pick your top 3.

How well do these 3 life priorities reflect the amount of time you give to them? For example, if your family comes out near the top but your job requires you to be flying all over the world all the time….where’s the balance?

If you look back at your life, it’s unlikely that you’re going to regret not having spent more time at the office.  Consider carefully what the important things in your life actually are, and begin to set yourself some goals around work-life balance.

Define what, to you, a more balanced life with less stress might look and feel like, so that you have a positive situation to work towards and don’t get stuck on a relentless treadmill of pressure, feeling powerless as it grinds you down.

If you’re trapped in a mindset that says ‘I can’t get off the treadmill – I have a family to support, bills to pay’ then give yourself a metaphorical slap in the face. Do your family want you to be a burnt out wreck? Do your creditors want you to become ill and be unable to pay your debts? No. Do yourself a favour and address the stress.

3) Retain perspective
Years ago I worked for a short while on a live, daily TV show. On one occasion, I was working with a TV chef who was assembling a pudding of some sort. Somehow, between the rehearsal and live transmission of the piece, a jug of custard had been moved from one side of the table to another, partially obscuring one of the camera shots.

During the debrief afterwards, some of the directors team were furious about the move of the custard, and went on a considerable length about the problems it had caused. The fact that no-one watching the show at home would have noticed – or even cared – didn’t seem to be a consideration.  Eventually, one senior member of the team brought the argument to a close by saying. “So a jug of custard got moved. Nobody died”.

Refresh your perspective from time to time. Take a step back. In the grand scheme of world events, where does it stand?

4) Don’t be a martyr
Pretending you’re fine and ploughing on is not an option. You might feel for some reason that this is the noble thing to do, but rest assured, it absolutely isn’t.

If you’re stressed, it’s highly likely that you’re irritable or moody and aren’t making quality decisions…which is going to impact on those around you and on your business or career.

Some leaders find themselves taking on too much because they don’t want their staff to feel pressured, working unreasonably long hours themselves whilst ensuring that their team clocks off at 5 pm.

What’s that about?! Learn to delegate, learn to trust the ability of others, and accept that you’re not earning any brownie points by being a martyr and are potentially establishing an unhealthy work ethic.

I used to work with one boss (I was very junior at the time) who pushed himself to unreasonable levels. The company was working on an important project that would impact the entire industry, and the stakes were high. However, he decided to model himself of Gordon Gekko, proclaiming that ‘lunch was for wimps’ and working long hours without a break.

I left before the project was completed, but I did hear that some time afterwards, that man had a breakdown. Was the project worth it? I’m guessing not.

5) Do something different
Make sure you have some out-of-work activities that are absolutely not work related. Golf. Needlepoint. Sky diving. Anything where your brain can have a chance to switch from pressing matters and focus elsewhere.

Simply trying to relax by doing nothing sometimes isn’t enough…the mind just wonders back to the stressful issue. In these cases doing SOMETHING –  mentally taking yourself somewhere else by reading, carrying out an activity, or going somewhere new – is the best approach to take in order to refresh and rebuild your strength.

Make sure that pressure doesn’t turn to stress. Don’t ignore it if it does.

If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to take care of – and lead – others.