Stress management, mental health and well-being are words and phrases now synonymous with the workplace. Over the last number of years, these topics have been widely researched and written about regarding their impact upon employees and businesses.
I have been busy this week delivering stress management training for a client. The participant group for each session comprised managers and employees plus at least one senior manager. As a result, the conversation often moved onto the role of the direct line manager in managing stress at work.
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This made for some interesting discussions, especially when the senior team members started to realise the factors that actually cause employees to become stressed on a regular basis. For example, employees were able to voice the small but crucial things in work that caused them stress such as having to muddle through with lower quality equipment than other teams.
The key message was that while the company was ordering the ‘right equipment’, employees were more focused on the grade of materials and lifespan of the equipment. There was a clear communication breakdown between some teams, line management, and procurement.
It was really refreshing to see these discussions taking place and the advice coming back to the team members from senior managers and procurement on how they should prepare their request. The company certainly wasn’t holding back on providing employees with the most suitable equipment.
Line Managers are Key
However, that is not how employees will interpret these situations. They don’t always have access to such open discussions. So, employees will always see the situation as it appears to them. In the example above, the members of one team could see that the equipment they were provided with was of a much lower quality than another team. These teams were working outdoors in rough terrain and in challenging circumstances. They could see that the other team had better waterproof gear and footwear. They could also feel their feet getting wet!
This was causing significant stress. When looking at the bigger picture of a national organisation, it is understandable that these seem like little things that can be solved with statements like “better order some raincoats for the teams”. Job done.
The little things matter though and proper gear is a big thing to those relying on it to keep dry, warm and to feel protected.
It is here that the line manager really matters. The line manager can make a huge impact on stress in the team and other areas including employee engagement, motivation and productivity.
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Line Managers: Tips for Stress Management
In this section, I will focus on some of the key pieces of advice we give people in stress management training and explore how line managers should behave/act to encourage their team members to implement and benefit from the advice.
We tell employees to:
1. Communicate your needs at work clearly
This piece of advice is absolutely core to the example I gave above regarding disparities in the quality of equipment between teams. It was clear that procurement and senior management were keen to hear about the quality and lifespan of equipment as this would mean savings in the medium to long term.
Line managers need to listen to the concerns of their team regarding their needs around equipment, protective clothing and other aspects of their working experiences. It must not be assumed that employees are just going to ask for the most expensive options. This is an unfounded fear. Employees, in my experience, almost always just want appropriate tools for the job.
They certainly don’t want to see their colleagues getting what they can only perceive as ‘favourable treatment’.
To ensure this doesn’t happen, line managers need to be assertive when submitting a request for equipment:
- Speak with your team and make a careful note of any quality issues with the previous equipment.
- Accept that your team members are experts when it comes to what they need in order to do their job properly.
- Make a note of the grading and quality requirements or other specific feedback your employees have about their ability/needs to do their job properly.
- Take ownership of these requirements. They are now yours to communicate up the line.
- Where appropriate, speak with your line management colleagues about how they were able to procure the higher quality equipment.
- Prepare a business case highlighting quality and equipment life cycle benefits of the equipment requested.
- Speak with your procurement people and senior management about the reasons for requesting this. Listen to their advice on how to present your request.
- Be assertive with your request.
It is also advisable to speak with your team about potential outcomes. Not every request is going to be granted and there will be good reasons for this. It is important that your team feel involved in the discussion around this. They are clever people and know how these things work. They will be happy when a request is granted and, as a result, be more accepting when they aren’t.
2. Learn to say ‘no’
Learning to say ‘no’ is a core piece of advice in most stress management training sessions. It is also frequently misunderstood by line managers who fear employees thinking they can just say ‘no’ to reasonable work requests.
Line managers should understand that learning to say ‘no’ is about encouraging employees to take ownership of their workload. It is about knowing where they have space for other tasks and identifying when their workload is becoming too much. When this happens, we are advising employees to say ‘no’ tactfully. They still have a job to do so they need to be prepared to discuss their schedule with their line manager, working together to prioritise tasks and find a solution.
When employees say ‘no’ to a work request, line managers should:
- Consider the person who is saying ‘no’ and how they are communicating this. Does this person continually say no, or does s/he usually work hard to meet all reasonable requests?
- Read between the lines and listen to what the employee is really saying. Maybe his/her schedule is already pretty packed. Your team member may be feeling overwhelmed with their workload.
- Make sure your team members know that it is OK to say ‘no’ in the right way. As long as they are seeking your support and guidance in considering their workload, prioritising and making space where necessary.
- Invite your team members to sit down with you and discuss their workload and where they need support.
Stress management in the workplace is about small and simple things and the line manager plays a key role in helping employees avoid stress and burnout.