Too much pressure? Give yourself a break - it's the company's fault

Personal stress-busting does not get to the root of the problem, argues Rachelle Thackray
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TIMES are changing, and along with new employment challenges, structures and markets come new strains of stress. You thought you'd heard the last word on the subject? Think again, says Dr Kim James of the Cranfield School of Management, who will be presenting the results of her research into organisational stress at a conference this week.

The phenomenon, she argues, stems not so much from individuals and their perceived problems so much as from those problems which are generated within the companies themselves. This is why, while Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and similar schemes are increasing in popularity, there is still a perplexing preponderance of agitated employees, according to Dr James.

"People began thinking that stress was for other people, not for them, but in fact, quite ordinary people can be stressed. The focus up till now has been on how you support individuals. The question has been how you can make sure people manage the stress in their lives," she says.

"There has been an emphasis on working with staff on how they manage their own attitudes and perceptions to get a balance in their lives. The reality may not have changed in some respects, but often we are just patching people up to send them back to the war zone. The impact of individual stress management is limited."

Where, then, does all this stress come from? How can you pin it down? Go back to basics, says Dr James. "As organisations become leaner, people are more stretched than they used to be. As organisations expand, they don't want to take on more staff; they use contract staff instead. There is a whole new era of work."

She cites "virtual" work and home-working as instances of the changing landscape, and says there are often no coping mechanisms within organisations which are able to withstand frequent shifts and mergers.

"People are expected to take on much more responsibility in flatter structures. It is difficult to know what is expected, and we are working with new technologies and ideas. People are setting up ways of working across former organisational boundaries."

Employees may be left groping in the dark to restructure their roles following reorganisation, fearing that their insecurities will be perceived by superiors as lack of competence. As job descriptions change and managers come and go, it is employees who bear the brunt, says Dr James. Problems may not be generated by employees, but they find themselves rolled into a snowballing situation.

Companies, she insists, need creativity in finding solutions to stress. Linear models are not good enough, and marginalising the issue, for example, by giving it as a "project" to an employee, shows the company is not committed to solving the problem of stress. "Some organisations come up with lists when they try to tackle it. But it's much more than that - it's an emotional thing. Where people are expected to be autonomous, they are excited by that but it's also quite daunting. They need lots of support."

Individual counselling is not enough, argues Dr James, who recommends that firms make space for employees to cognitively examine their stresses together - in workshops, for instance. Something as simple as knowing who to talk to about a problem could be the answer.

"Sometimes people will say: 'I wish you had my manager here' or 'You should have the bloke down the corridor who shouts'. Being able to talk about things in a constructive way is good. But organisations need to take a strategic approach to it. They may throw a lot of money and resources at it, but there's nothing really concerted about the effort.

"Organisations must think about stress as part of the whole set-up. It is not that some people are stressed or that things need fixing. A problem may originate miles away, so you need the bigger picture."

For details of the conference on stress management, to be held this week, telephone Paula Annals at Cranfield School of Management on 01234 751122.