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How stress damages organisations and what to do about it

The statistics are mounting up.

One in two workers claim to suffer stress and anxiety at work, according to the mental health charity Mind. Government figures show that nearly a million people are claiming sickness benefit due to stress related problems. Other statistics tell us 12.8 million working days are lost every year due to stress at work although a massive 45 million days are lost due to general stress and anxiety problems.

If you don’t think that these national statistics are important to you, then lets put them in perspective. The fact is that these monumental figures equate to an average 10.7 sickness days per employee in the public sector and 7.8 days per employee in the private sector. In monetary terms this absenteeism costs you nearly £600 for every employee on your pay role.

But this is only the cost of absenteeism. The really damaging aspect of stress is that it is actually costing you even more money for every one of your people that turns up to work.

In fact, stress in the work place can be so harmful to productivity and profitability that every manager should recognise that good stress management is one and the same as good management. A simple working understanding of organisational stress management can dramatically (and inexpensively) improve your bottom line.

Creating a low-stress environment is a fundamental strategic priority

Quite simply, an understanding of stress is too important a competence to be left to the human resources department alone. The ability to create a low-stress environment has to be fundamental to anyone with responsibility for achieving strategic objectives within an organisation. And this applies from the chairman down to every line manager and supervisor.

Organisations that understand this indisputable fact are known to outshine their rivals. A recent study demonstrates that companies described as “high morale” businesses outperform their competitors by a factor of two to one in share price values. Many other studies link high performance companies with high degrees of job satisfaction and a good working atmosphere.

Stressed organisations are unhappy places to work

In essence, stressed organisations are unhappy places to work. This is also important to you, as stressed organisations tend to lose high performing people. At the same time they tend to attract people with high levels of stress who habitually demonstrate low performance and ill health.

If you have a look at the typical symptoms of stressed people within a working organisation it is not difficult to see why high performance relates closely to a low stress, happy atmosphere. Removing stress has to be a priority if you really want your organisation to succeed. 

Stress gives rise to a wide range of unproductive behaviours

Stress gives rise to a wide range of unproductive behaviours that you see in most organisations. These include interpersonal conflicts, absenteeism, unethical behaviour, incompetence, chaotic activity, negativity, dullness, resistance to change to name just a few. In fact these symptoms of stress are so prevalent in society generally that we tend to take them for granted. We shouldn’t. It is this sort of unproductive behaviour that is so damaging to any coherent effort to get things done and to achieve worthwhile organisational goals.  To name just a few, stressed organisations are inflicted with:

Quite simply stress in the organisation can have an insidious effect on every significant personal transaction between staff and management and can directly influence efficient operational functioning, high performance and productivity. It is for this reason that good management is also good stress management pure and simple.

But first, what is stress any way?

Different people seem to define stress in different ways and some observers even say it can be a good thing. So here I want to be clear as to how we define stress. Let’s know exactly what we are talking about and why it can create so much harm before we think about fixing it.

The mechanics of stress ­ a clearer, Science based definition

When I use the word stress here, I want you to understand that I am referring to the harmful residual experience or results from stressful stimuli. You see we are confronted with stressful stimuli or “stressors” every day of our working lives. But these stimuli are not necessarily harmful unless we fail to assimilate the experience properly.

In other words, if we find ways to cope with a stressor easily and effortlessly it will not do us any harm in the long term.

So what are stressful stimuli?

At the extreme end of the scale any ordeal (or perceived risk of such an ordeal) that provokes the fight or flight response in your psychophysiology can be termed as a stressful stimulus. And of course, emotionally, we experience this response as either fear or anger.

So lets look for a minute at what happens when we are confronted with a really terrifying situation. How do we react?

When our senses perceive a threat it is actually recognised as such by our mind’s powerful pattern matching processor. This pattern matching processor overrides the logical, intellectual brain and fires our body into immediate overdrive. And this overdrive is designed to help protect us in just one of only two ways. Our psychophysiology will either prepare us to leg it or slug it out.

How does this happen?

During a stressful episode the rational mind is more or less shut down

Well, first and foremost the rational mind is more or less shut down. Instead, our raw, unbridled, emotional side takes over.

We are left with no aptitude for negotiation or diplomacy here. There are no shades of grey, no planning or academic dithering about deciding what to do. The body-mind has already kicked into action with a flood of stress hormones or bio-chemicals such as cortisol, adrenalin and so on, and these gear the muscle tissues, blood circulation, oxygen flow, heart beat, and even our elimination system for a massively strenuous and lifesaving effort.

What would typically follow in a real life-threatening event is that in the process of running away or fighting for your life all these stress bio-chemicals in the system are burnt up and flushed out through the normal process of strenuous activity. That’s if you’re lucky to live through the event that is.

But here lies the problem.

A violent response to stressful stimuli is not considered appropriate these days

Today, in a working or business environment, most of the time, the stressful stimuli that we experience are provoked by fears, worries, doubts and antagonisms that do not warrant a physical response of any sort; quite the reverse in fact.

In today’s urban society beating your manager senseless for threatening you with disciplinary action, or defecating copiously and fleeing from the meeting room in abject terror is considered to be bad form. Such vigorous responses are certainly not conducive to your promotional prospects.

No, these days, you have to resist the urge for violent and exhilarating action and adopt a subtler response. In essence you have to find more cerebral means to resolve the situation and the last thing you need is to give in to rampant, black or white emotions and resort to some sort of spirited physical reaction.

The sort of stress we get at work is seldom life-threatening but over the long-term can be very harmful

This is all well and good. Restraining ourselves in the face of stressful stimuli is appropriate for two very good reasons:

Firstly, this admirable restraint protects society, including us, from random mayhem and violence erupting every time someone feels threatened.

Secondly,  the stressful stimuli, especially the sort of stress we get at work is very seldom actually life threatening. A lot of the time the stimulus is not even meant to be threatening at all. As such, it has been called low-grade stress as it provokes some degree of stress response but not to the extent that stimulates real physical reaction.

In essence these low-grade stressful situations are no more than situations where we perceive we cannot cope and this gives rise to our stress response.

Now, these stressful situations might well be described as low-grade but the problem with them is that they are also widely prevalent if not interminable in the usual business environment.

Even low-grade stress diminishes our ability to think rationally

There is a real downside to the regular experience of low-grade stress.

Stress affects us across a wide spectrum. So although we might not be confronted with terrifying life-threatening events at work, the stressors that we actually experience have the effect of gradually or progressively shutting down our ability to have access to our frontal cortex. In this way even low-grade stress progressively shuts down our ability to think rationally, use our long-term memory, use our imaginations, negotiate diplomatically and so on.

In other words, in a low-grade stress situation our intellectual and emotional performance is significantly impaired to the detriment of both the organisation and ourselves. 

Long-term low-grade stress builds up a toxic residue of stress hormones in our system

There is also another downside to our restraint in the face of stressful situations.

You see the stress responses of worry, anxiety or anger we give to these low-grade stress situations do not provide us with a means to burn-off those stress bio-chemicals. (Such responses do not even provide us with a means to cope with the situation either). So as we move from one stressful situation to another, we tend to accumulate these unresolved experiences in our very physiologies.

What this means is that we are left harbouring within our physiologies what are, in effect toxic bio-chemicals that, over the long term, do us harm and reduce our ability to perform at an optimal level of functioning.

In the work context, this is where the harmful effects of stress begin to impact not just on your people but also on your entire organisation, its productivity and its profitability. Thus we see that stress impacts your peoples’ health, ability to think clearly, their judgement, ability and willingness to collaborate, their enthusiasm, positivity and a whole bunch of other factors. Stress is a real dampener on your organisation’s prospects for success.

The human givens approach to stress

So what is the guiding principle here? How do you avoid creating a stressful environment or stressful situations at work? Fortunately in recent years better scientific research has generated a clearer picture of the nature of the problem and what we can do to solve it.

In particular a new development in psychological understanding, called the "human givens” approach, has defined wider and more accurate parameters to stress. This new and thoroughly research based definition encompasses the low-grade stress that is so prevalent in our lives to day and especially so at work.

In brief, the human givens approach essentially explains that stress arises where people perceive they can’t cope. By that I mean the stress response arises where people feel that they are unable to meet their inherent physical, emotional and psychological needs.

Working with, not against human needs alleviates stress

In the human givens therapeutic model of mental health, stress, suffering and mental illness arise when there is an imbalance or mismatch between our emotional needs and the inner resources that nature has provided for us to meet those essential needs.

The reverse side of this is that you can achieve good health and high performance when you work with, not against, these physical, emotional and psychological needs.

This of course leads us to the next question - ­ What are these needs? Briefly these various needs have been outlined in human givens’ terms as the need for:

  • Security including safe territory to develop and work in. This includes freedom from fear of a range of factors that could include redundancy, technological change, major changes to work processes, chaotic routines, physical intimidation and so on.
  • Attention that is both to give and receive it. This was identified as far back as the 1920s during the Hawthorne research experiments.
  • A sense of autonomy and control over the immediate environment and relevant tasks
  • Being part of a wider community
  • Enjoyment friendship and fun
  • Privacy
  • A degree of status within their group
  • A degree of achievement and a feeling of competence
  • A challenge, human beings need to problem-solve
  • A healthy routine

Some sort of meaning in life. In the work context this can apply to having some sort of meaningful work to do. This meaning can also come from being stretched or from supporting the wider goals or ethics of the organisation.

From the research it is clear that when you don’t take these characteristics into account you will be constantly under performing.

The flipside to the human needs are the human resources you can access

The reason for this inevitable underperformance is the flipside to the human givens approach. The human givens is not all about human needs. The flipside is this; if you go some way to meet the human needs that are inherent in your staff then you will unleash the use of their inherent resources.

What we so often forget in management is that the human being has evolved over eons to become a highly sociable and collaborative problem-solving animal. The species didn’t get to survive against all comers without developing a repertoire of capabilities honed to excellence by the constant struggle to survive as a group.

When you have hired someone, believe it or not, these inherent capabilities are there at your disposal.

So why not make use of them? When viewed this way you can see that if you learn to utilise these capabilities then you are far more likely to succeed in building a dynamic and highly productive organisation.

Fail to meet inherent human needs and you will trigger a stress response

Whereas failing to meet these inherent human needs triggers off the range of low-grade stress responses that we saw earlier and are so common in organisations today.

As such, stress is dangerous for both your health and for the health of your organisation.

It is the stress that infests every aspect of our organisations that is so often responsible for suppressing peoples’ ability to access and use the inner resources. And it is these inner resources that can so quickly transform a mediocre or even failing organisation into a world-class wealth generating enterprise.

Maintain a stressful working environment and you are quite simply sabotaging your own efforts at profitability

As such, it is the stress inherent in our typical management and planning practices that is literally undermining or even demolishing our ability to achieve excellence and a productive outcome from our work.

The one fact you need to remember is that if you maintain a stressful working environment by ignoring the Human Givens, then you are quite simply sabotaging your own efforts to make your company profitable.

Stress in the collective system obstructs the flow of group activity

Modern research into business planning and psychotherapy clearly indicate that to be consistently successful, you need a method of management that naturally integrates the “hard” requirements of sales, profit margins, cash flows, information systems, deadlines and production schedules with the “soft” requirements inherent in your managers’ and staffs’ needs ­ the Human Givens.

The salient point to understand is that stress in the work place doesn’t just affect and harm the individuals concerned. Stress also has a powerful impact on the whole organisation. And whether you like it or not, you as a manager need to take a central role in alleviating this stress if you are to create a highly productive and profitable organisation.

In one sentence, stress in the work place obstructs or blocks the coherence required to generate a smooth integration of all the diverse factors in the management of any complex organisation. Just as stress is known to obstruct the natural flow of activity in the individual physiology, so stress in the collective system also obstructs the flow of activity in the group. 

To generate a powerfully productive organisation, you need to set yourself the role of facilitating or empowering a low-stress environment. In a low-stress environment, every single person in your entire workforce can perform better by utilising and developing their innate inner resources to an optimum extent.

But how do you facilitate a low-stress environment?

Organisational stress audit

First off you need to assess the nature and extent of the problem. You do this by identifying exactly what “stressors” are prevalent in your organisation. Then gauge the impact they are having on productivity and working performance at every level. You can do this by identifying the exact Human Givens that are being impacted by the various stressors.

Only when you have identified both the stressors and the consequential impact that they are having on your productivity, can you begin to develop a comprehensive strategy that will either rectify or alleviate the problems.

Remember some stressors will be inherent to the organisation’s environment or mission anyway so they aren’t going to go away. The only answer in these circumstances as say in “major strategic change” is to find ways that help you cope the best.

But what are these stressors?

Over the years various observers have identified thirty major stressors that disrupt the flow of operations, dampen performance and productivity and generally make life more difficult for everyone in the organisation.

Each of these thirty stressors falls into one of seven broad categories.

The thirty major organisational stressors

  1. The management style adopted by the organisation
  2. Types of management structure that can undermine or threaten emotional needs
  3. Strategic issues
  4. Elements of the management function that cut across human needs
  5. Physical factors
  6. Psychological or personal and relationship factors
  7. Government influence as a stressor

The transformational role of collaboration in removing organisational stress

The quickest way to tackle the inherent stressors within your organisation is to instigate a truly collaborative effort from all levels of management and staff. Remember that earlier point that the human being has a evolved to be a highly socialised, collaborative problem solving mammal?

Well this is precisely the one innate human  characteristic that you can really exploit to eradicate stress from your organisation and so transform your organisational performance.

So even while you are carrying out your organisational stress audit, you commence deliberately and consciously to access and utilise the inherent resources of all your staff. And by that I mean, those resources defined by the Human Givens as the innate capabilities that have made human beings such a powerfully successful problem solving species.

Just think, if you can somehow tap into everyone’s inherent ability to collaborate, investigate and solve problems, come up with new ideas and enthusiastically action them. If you could do this, you would be making use of ten to a hundred times the brainpower that you currently have available to work with.

I can tell you that the effect on an organisation is truly transformational.

A group effort but without the chaos

But, the next question then is how can you develop this truly collaborative effort without the whole organisation descending into chaos?

This is where the team or group planning procedures, of Team Business Development (TBD) play a vital and pivotal role.

TBD is in essence a highly structured method that allows the CEO or MD to instigate and control collaborative or team based planning and management involving a broad spectrum of people in any organisation. As such it can have a powerful effect on reducing the stress levels in your own organisation at the same time as initiating a powerful business development or improvement process.

Research based management techniques

The fundamental principles driving TBD are both practical and sound.

This is simply because TBD has evolved from a wide body of research, practical experience and scientific observation. In fact the original studies into group or “team planning” were carried out at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, one of the top three scientific research institutes in the world. And this initial research was specifically directed at finding an answer to the question - why do companies grow?

The upshot of all this research is that we now have a method to introduce a well structured, but natural sequence of events and procedures, into the team management and decision-making processes of an organisation that involves the whole team.

Live action planning workshops focus energy, remove chaos and alleviate the major stressors

This standard way of operating revolves around a series of collaborative live action planning workshops collectively known as a Business Operating Platform. It is these workshops, their sequence and structure that remove the potential chaos, focus the team’s energy and alleviate the major stressors that so dampen productivity.

Instead of the predictable chaos that might be associated with a free for all or bottom-up approach to running things, TBD has been spectacularly successful at instilling coherence, consensus, clarity, consistency and highly effective collaboration into a whole range of different types of organisations. Productivity has been shown to rise from between 25% to 50% in a short space of time.

Organisational stress audits and the Team Business Development programme

If you recognised any of these stressors as familiar to your organisation, or if you are aware that your organisation isReinventing management thinking under-performing and would like to know more about exactly how you can go about alleviating them, then just give Jeremy Old a ring now on 0845 0945 819

Without any obligation we can discuss just how we can conduct an organisational stress audit to ascertain the extent and impact that stress is having on your organisation’s effectiveness. From this we can see how TBD’s remarkably powerful team-based planning programme can be structured to help you create a truly effective and dynamic enterprise.

Jeremy Old is author of ‘Reinventing management thinking – using science to release the human spirit’. He is also a specialist in leadership and employee engagement, read more about our employee engagement programs here.

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