Satisfaction will ease away the stress

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The Independent Online
DO YOU feel irritable, depressed or anxious at work? Do you react to problems emotionally rather than logically? Do you find it hard to relax and sleep? Is your creativity blocked? Do you get indigestion or tension headaches? Do family or friends say you drink too much? All these are symptoms of what has been described as the Black Plague of the 20th century - stress.

The main causes of occupational stress include overwork, organisational change, unreasonable deadlines, office politics, lack of recognition, lack of development and advancement, role ambiguity, poor relationships with colleagues, and conflict between the demands of the family and the job.

In recent years growing global competition has led to a massive restructuring of British business. This has involved downsizing, delayering and other cost cutting measures. The message has also gone out that there are no longer any jobs for life and that we must each be prepared for the insecurity of a portfolio career.

Much restructuring was done in haste, without considering the effect on people. Some organisations removed too many management layers, so the survivors were left with too broad a span of responsibility. Others got rid of too many people, so the survivors are overloaded. At the same time, many employers introduced new technology and work systems without giving already overworked people sufficient time to adapt.

Many surveys show that managers work long hours. However there is encouraging evidence from the Institute of Management and the University of Man- chester Institute of Science and Technology that the long-hours culture may be in decline. This is one of the key findings in the second year of the Quality of Working Life, a five-year study tracking trends in the British workplace.

The study found that in the past year the proportion of managers working over 40 hours a week dropped from 82 to 78 per cent, and those working more than 50 hours from 38 to 34 per cent. Those working weekends fell from 41 to 34 per cent, and those regularly working in the evening from 59 to 54 per cent.

Despite this slight improvement, the survey says that long working hours still take a toll on people's personal and professional lives. Almost three-quarters report that working long hours affects their relationships with their partners and that it also encroaches on the time they can spend with their children. Moreover, more than half say it is damaging their health as well as making them less productive at work. Pressure to meet tight deadlines is the main reason given for working long hours cited by 63 per cent of managers.

Although working fewer hours, the study shows that managers are under growing pressure. Almost half suffer from information overload and more than two-thirds feel under constant time pressure - a higher proportion than last year.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said their organisations had restructured in the past year. Half of those said this had increased profitability, but two-thirds said it had led to job insecurity and lower morale, and half said it had eroded motivation and loyalty.

It might be argued that if businesses become more competitive, more productive and more profitable, the stress endured by their people is an acceptable price to pay. But managers report that they are less productive. And stress blocks people's creativity and also makes them less able to solve problems. Short term gains in profits through cost cutting are likely to be offset by poor motivation and by growing absenteeism and turnover. For instance, the CBI estimated some time ago that occupational stress is responsible for 24 million lost working days a year at a cost of pounds 1.3bn.

The recently published findings of the Sheffield Effectiveness Programme, a 10-year study begun in 1991 to look at the factors which influence company effectiveness, provided conclusive evidence that the biggest single determinant is the level of employee satisfaction. Consequently it said "concern for employee welfare was by far and away the most significant factor".

As stress does not contribute to employee satisfaction, how do employers monitor and mitigate its effects? There are two main tools: stress audits to measure the scale of the problem, and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs)

Regular stress audits are normally conducted by an external organisation such as BUPA as part of a health screening programme. They involve confidential questionnaires which seek to identify the sources of pressure for employees and their individual coping strategies.

EAPs provide confidential support to employees suffering from stress or worried by personal problems. They too are usually run by external firms. Support is available 24 hours, 365 days a year, enabling people to talk through their problems at work and at home. This can include financial, legal and other specialist counselling. They also support employers by identifying the causes of stress and proposing how these can be rectified.

Unfortunately the public sector is much better than the private in monitoring stress and providing EAPs. What can the individual do?

A good starting point is the succinct step-by-step guide on how to identify and cope with stress, and strategies for prevention - Successful Stress Management in a Week published last month by The Institute of Management and Hodder & Stoughton at pounds 6.99.

To minimise stress the authors say we should ensure a good fit between our job and ourselves; develop sensible, rational beliefs and attitudes; develop a good social support network; and learn to relax, use leisure time profitably, and keep as physically healthy as we can.