Management: Lowering stress is good for business: Empowering employees is not a luxury but an essential factor for good organisation

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The Independent Online
A FEW YEARS ago, people who were under a lot of pressure at work had a choice: they could work less hard, for less money, somewhere else. Today, however, fear of unemployment is forcing people to put up with stress.

This tolerance of unacceptable conditions has an adverse effect on people's health. For some time there has been significant scientific evidence of a link between our psychological and physical well-being. Feeling that we have control over our lives helps to keep us healthy psychologically and, in turn, physically. Feelings of lack of control, insecurity, fear of failure and low self-esteem can affect our immune and cardiovascular systems.

However, many British businesses ignore this. There is still a strong belief that the causes of stress are primarily outside the workplace, or that stress on the job reflects a 'design fault' in the employee - 'If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.'

Though senior executives are aware that poor physical work conditions provoke stress, they still do not recognise the importance of a more pervasive player in the field of stress: poor management.

Bad management leads to poor performance at an individual, team and organisational level. It can easily make the difference between success and failure for an organisation.

Though management education has reinforced the philosophy that empowering employees - letting them participate in decision-making - is good practice, many managers seem to see this as something that is 'nice to have', rather than an essential aspect of organisational life, particularly during a recession.

Many businesses fail to acknowledge that stress and ill health influence performance long before an individual sends in a sick note. Stress affects our motivation levels, the energy we can commit to an action, the way we interact (with its knock-on effect to customers, other staff and the public image of an organisation) and our ability to solve problems.

Investment in employee assistance programmes and in-house counselling services, albeit by a small number of organisations, indicates a growing awareness that poor health among employees is a serious business issue. Nevertheless,

there is a widespread misconception among many companies that producing an organisational culture that is psychologically healthy for people is soft and unbusinesslike, and that it costs a vast amount of money to implement.

Hard decisions can be made, aggressive business policies set and tough objectives given to staff without incurring bad management practices. And the cost of changing management practices need not be great. High-profile programmes with 'knobs, bells and whistles' are not necessarily required. The essential components are:

recognition of the need to change, which has to come from a business imperative rather than altruistic values;

a senior team to lead change that has the courage 'to try it a different way';

a leader who is sufficiently mature and self-aware to 'live' good management and demand the same standards of staff;

recognition that the senior team does not have to do it alone: people will put energy and effort into a venture if they feel respected and involved, and can see the integrity of those who lead them.

The challenge to business is to think and act differently in terms of 'managing' and 'stress'. This means understanding that stress is not just the personal problem of the individual concerned; it is a business problem. Waiting for heart attacks is bad for the bottom line.

The author is a consultant at Coopers & Lybrand, the accountants and management consultants.

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