Stressed out? Try working smart, not long

When the going gets tough, the tough should take a day off. Jane Simms learns what to do when the pressures of work become too much to bear
Stress is a fact of business life in the Nineties. Flatter company structures and fierce external competition mean there are fewer managers, who are having to work harder - with fewer resources - and be more productive than ever before.

The Ashridge Management Index, a management barometer set up last month by Ashridge Management College, says more than three-quarters of managers see work as a source of stress, with women suffering more than men. Stress grows as one climbs the ladder - 80 per cent of board-level managers cite work as stressful, but as many as 68 per cent of junior managers also feel the strain.

The main contributing factors are the conflict between the roles of parent and manager, pressure to learn and develop new skills, insufficient resources, lack of career development opportunities and lack of job security.

Modern managers are apparently torn between being specialists and generalists, and between being individuals and team players. They also feel they receive inadequate support and recognition from their own managers. And they are developing a healthy cynicism for "modern management fads" as the promised benefits of many programmes fail to materialise. As the report states, "It is justifiable to question how productive managers can be when the vast majority find their work a source of stress."

Many stress-inducing factors are unavoidable. The days of jobs for life are long gone, and individuals will increasingly be required to be more flexible, adaptable and people-oriented. But the report gives some clues as to the sources of stress that can be avoided.

More than half the respondents frequently work more than 60 hours a week, and 60per cent often take work home. Curiously, volume of work was not cited in the report as a source of stress, but management psychologists agree that regularly working long hours upsets the all-important balance between work and private life.

Cary Cooper, professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says "long hours don't necessarily equate to quality production". He points out that in Germany, the most successful economy in Europe, managers typically work far shorter hours than in any other European country, particularly the UK. "If a German boss sees a junior manager consistently working late, he either thinks he's not coping, he's not managing his time properly, or he '

s insecure about his job," says Professor Cooper. Likewise, cancelling holidays is anathema.

Work smart, not long, says Professor Cooper.You ought to be able to increase your productivity by 20-30per cent through proper time management. And managing your time also means allowing space for a full private life. "You are more productive if you havean outside life," he says.

But, he warns, don't just go home and flop in front of the television. "You'll just sit and brood about all the problems at work."

The symptoms of stress are easy to spot, says Professor Cooper. "Lack of concentration, irritability, aggression, sense of humour failure are all signs that you are about to cross the divide between healthy pressure and stress."

At that stage you have to fight the instinct to go into the office on Saturday, and instead take a day off. "Get right away from work," he advocates.

Most companies in Scandinavia allow employees to take off up to five "mental health days" a year, he says. "You phone up and say `I'm going to take a mental health day today'. In this country you phone in and say you've got flu."

Enlightened British companies might offer their managers executive stress counselling, but the Anglo-American macho style of management dies hard. By and large, stress is still a four-letter-word in British industry, and even if you swallow your pride and ask for help, you are likely to get short shrift from your boss - who's probably even more stressed than you are. In short, you have to look after yourself and manage your own stress.

One of the most important skills to learn is delegation - something most managers are very bad at, "largely out of fear that they will lose the little control they have left".

Another main cause of stress is failure to manage the new - largely people-orientated - aspects of your job when you are promoted, and dropping back to the "comfort zone" of your technical speciality. Training in general management is crucial to cope with the transition.

Professor Cooper also advocates than in today's "contract culture", which is characterised by "project-management relationships" rather than full-time employment, you seize the opportunity to attend training programmes to develop your skills. "It puts y o u in control by giving you the skills to get out," he says Although the onus for career development - including "soft" issues such as stress - rests with the individual, there are some important lessons here for organisations, too.

Steve Rathborn, a management development consultant at Sundridge Park Management Centre in Bromley, Kent, says: "You need stimulation in order to get things done. But if it goes too far, it becomes debilitating and you stop coping. At that stage you start to shut down and stop spotting opportunities. You are so busy dealing with day-to-day problems that you are unable to be innovative and original. That in its turn causes stress at home, which causes even more stress at work." Stress, combined w ith resentment that rewards are not commensurate with the effort put in - an overwhelming issue - means that many junior and middle managers are either well on the road to burn-out, or poised to leave when an opportunity arises.

It may be difficult to pay them more, it may be difficult to reduce their workload. But companies can both reduce their managers' stress and help to maximise their productivity by investing money in training and development. It is an expensive exercise, and the payback will not come immediately, says MrRathborn. But it will ensure the company's survival in the medium and long term.