Managers can take steps to prevent stress in the office

IT’S hardly a stretch to work out that economic gloom will exacerbate workplace stress. And that means more than just a few tough deadlines – it can cause serious mental health issues. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health says that such problems cost UK organisations about £26bn each year. The latest Health and Safety Executive statistical report shows that 39.9 per cent of the 34m days lost due to work-related ill health in 2007/08 were already linked to stress, depression or anxiety. And the recession has, of course, exacerbated the situation. A recent survey from the IRS Employment Review found that 65 per cent of employers surveyed reported that stress had increased among employees who have survived one or more redundancy programme.

This isn’t something that will just go away. Employment advisory service Acas has today launched a campaign calling for UK businesses to take note of mental health issues, noting that even while the economy improves, “the impact on workplaces will be felt far into the future.”

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, says that the problem is particularly serious in the City where there is a general self-esteem problem. “Morale has dropped because the image of the City is so poor – people aren’t proud to work there as they once were,” he says.

The first step to dealing with this is ensuring that managers are on the lookout for staff who are not coping. Pressure for results can be so intense that it is easy to forget about the wellbeing of team members. “Managers will be trained to understand a company’s HR policy, but that doesn’t mean they know how to deal with people and the issues important to them. That’s about social and interpersonal skill development, and we don’t do enough of that,” Cooper says. He adds that organisations must recognise that, since mentally healthy staff produce better results anyway, it makes sense to invest in the training.

A key element of a more socially responsible management style is also one of the most simple: to remember to praise people. Managers are often adept at highlighting their employees’ faults and failings, but less so at acknowledging their achievements, and the cumulative effect can be debilitating. “We are social animals, and there is a human need for praise, for acceptance and companionship,” says Sheri Jacobson, a Harley street psychotherapist whose clients include City workers.

Weak or absent management is also a significant problem, says Jacobson. If an employee’s manager keeps changing, or doesn’t find the time to communicate directly and honestly with people, then they can feel isolated and undervalued, which can snowball into depression.

Professor Cooper also describes the phenomenon of “role ambiguity” – a lack of clarity in the purpose and objectives of a person’s job – as a significant cause of stress. This can happen because their jobs have changed in a fast-changing company, or because managers have failed to give them clear instructions. Human beings like regularity and patterns, says Jacobson. If routines change often, this has a destabilising effect. Managers need to accept that this is a serious problem, and to provide effective direction.

In the City, work/life balance has often been something of a secondary consideration. As Cooper says: “A long hours culture damages health, relationships and productivity.” But a large workload doesn’t have to mean lots of hours in the office. One partial solution can be remote working. Many companies still think that this is only for people who travel regularly or are on maternity leave. But giving people freedom can help them, and managers have to trust people to do their jobs when they are out of sight.

At its extreme, bad management can tip over into bullying, which Cooper describes as “the persistent devaluing and demeaning of a person”. He says that it is essential that organisations have the right mechanisms set up for such behaviour to be reported and investigated – stress is only increased if workers have nowhere to turn, and proper procedures can be put in place to re-train and rehabilitate offenders. Stress is inevitable in the City, and especially now, but there are ways to reduce it. And that helps everybody – and the bottom line.