20 Aug How stress damages your organisation
The statistics are mounting up – Stress damages your organisation.
One in two workers claim to suffer stress and anxiety at work, according to the mental health charity Mind. Government figures show that nearly a million people are claiming sickness benefit due to stress related problems. Other statistics tell us organisations lose a massive 45 million days due to general stress and anxiety problems.
If you don’t think that these national statistics are important to you, then lets put them in perspective. The fact is that these monumental figures equate to an average 10.7 sickness days per employee in the public sector and 7.8 days per employee in the private sector. In monetary terms this absenteeism costs you nearly £600 for every employee on your pay role.
But this is only the cost of absenteeism. The really damaging aspect of stress is that it actually costs you even more money for every one of your people that turns up to work.
In fact, stress in the work place can be so harmful to productivity and profitability that every manager should recognise that good stress management is one and the same as good management. A simple working understanding of organisational stress management can dramatically (and inexpensively) improve your bottom line.
Creating a low-stress environment is a fundamental strategic priority
Quite simply, an understanding of stress is too important a competence to be left to the human resources department alone. The ability to create a low-stress environment has to be fundamental to anyone responsible for achieving strategic objectives. And this applies from the chairman down to every line manager and supervisor.
Organisations that understand this indisputable fact outshine their rivals. A recent study demonstrates that companies described as “high morale” businesses outperform their competitors by a factor of two to one in share price values. Many other studies link high performance companies with high degrees of job satisfaction and a good working atmosphere.
Stressed organisations are unhappy places to work
In essence, stressed organisations are unhappy places to work. This is also important to you, as stressed organisations tend to lose high performing people. At the same time they tend to attract people with high levels of stress. And people with high stress levels habitually demonstrate low performance and ill health.
If you have a look at the typical stress symptoms it is not difficult to see why high performance relates closely to a low stress, happy atmosphere. Removing stress has to be a priority if you really want your organisation to succeed.
Stress gives rise to a wide range of unproductive behaviours
Stress gives rise to a wide range of unproductive behaviours. These include interpersonal conflicts, absenteeism, unethical behaviour, incompetence, chaotic activity, negativity, dullness, resistance to change to name just a few. In fact these stress symptoms are so prevalent in society generally that we tend to take them for granted. We shouldn’t. It is this sort of unproductive behaviour that is so damaging to any coherent effort to get things done and to achieve worthwhile organisational goals.
Quite simply stress in the organisation can have an insidious effect on every significant personal transaction between staff and management and can directly influence efficient operational functioning, high performance and productivity. It is for this reason that good management is also good stress management pure and simple.
But first, what is stress any way?
Different people seem to define stress in different ways. Some more traditional observers even say it can be a good thing. So here I want to be clear as to how we define stress. Let’s know exactly what we are talking about and why it can create so much harm. At that point we can start to think think about how to fixing the problem.
The mechanics of stress – A clearer, science based definition
When I use the word stress here, I want you to understand that I am referring to the harmful residual experience or results from stressful stimuli. You see we are confronted with stressful stimuli or “stressors” every day of our working lives. But these stimuli are not necessarily harmful unless we fail to assimilate the experience properly.
In other words, if we find ways to cope with a stressor easily and effortlessly it will not do us any harm in the long term.
So what are stressful stimuli?
At the extreme end of the scale any ordeal (or perceived risk of such an ordeal) that provokes the fight or flight response in your psychophysiology can be termed as a stressful stimulus. And of course, emotionally, we experience this response as either fear or anger.
So lets look for a minute at what happens when a really terrifying situation confronts us. How do we react?
When our senses perceive a threat, it is actually recognized as such by our mind’s powerful pattern matching processor. This pattern matching processor overrides the logical, intellectual brain and fires our body into immediate overdrive. And this overdrive helps protect us in just one of only two ways. Our psychophysiology will either prepare us to leg it or slug it out.
How does this happen?
Stressful episodes more or less shut down the rational mind
Well, first and foremost a powerfully stressful event will more or less shut down the rational mind. When this happens our raw, unbridled, emotional side takes over.
We are left with no aptitude for negotiation or diplomacy. There are no shades of grey, no planning or academic dithering about deciding what to do. The body-mind has already kicked into action with a flood of stress hormones or bio-chemicals such as cortisol, adrenalin and so on. And these spontaneously gear-up the muscle tissues, blood circulation, oxygen flow, heart beat, and even our elimination system. The whole objective is to get your physiology ready for a massively strenuous and lifesaving effort.
What would typically follow in a real life-threatening event is that in the process of running away or fighting for your life, you take some sort of dynamic action. During this natural process of strenuous activity, the physiology burns up and flushes our a ll these stress bio-chemicals. That’s if you’re lucky to live through the event that is.
But here lies the problem.
A violent response to stressful stimuli is not considered appropriate these days
Today, in a working or business environment, most of the time, the stressful stimuli that we experience are provoked by fears, worries, doubts and antagonisms. These threats do not warrant a physical response of any sort; quite the reverse in fact.
In today’s urban society beating your manager senseless because he threatens you with disciplinary action is somewhat counterproductive. Similarly, defecating copiously, screaming your head off and fleeing from ta difficult meeting in abject terror is considered to be bad form. Such vigorous responses are certainly not conducive to your promotional prospects.
No, these days, you have to resist the urge for violent and exhilarating action and adopt a subtler response. In essence you have to find more cerebral means to resolve the situation. Quite frankly, the last thing you need is to give in to rampant, black or white emotions and resort to some sort of spirited physical reaction.
The sort of stress we get at work is seldom life-threatening but over the long-term can be very harmful
This is all well and good. Restraining ourselves in the face of stressful stimuli is appropriate for two very good reasons:
Firstly, this admirable restraint protects us and the rest of society from random mayhem and violence erupting every time someone feels threatened.
Secondly, the stressful stimuli, especially the sort of stress we get at work is very seldom actually life threatening. A lot of the time the stimulus is not even meant to be threatening at all. As such, I refer to it as low-grade stress. This is because it provokes some degree of stress response but not to the extent that stimulates real physical reaction.
In essence these low-grade stressful situations are no more than situations where we perceive we cannot cope. Feeling as though we cannot cope gives rise to our stress response.
Now, these stressful situations might well be described as low-grade but the problem with them is that they are also widely prevalent. It might be more true to say that in the usual business environment they seem interminable.
Even low-grade stress diminishes our ability to think rationally
There is a real downside to the regular experience of low-grade stress.
Stress affects us across a wide spectrum. Now it may be that terrifying threatening events are mercifully rare at work. However, the stressors that we actually experience, gradually or progressively shut down our ability to access our frontal cortex. In this way even low-grade stress progressively shuts down our ability to think rationally, use our long-term memory, use our imaginations, negotiate diplomatically and so on.
In other words, a low-grade stress situation significantly impairs our intellectual and emotional performance. It is this loss of performance that is so detrimental to both the organisation and ourselves.
Long-term low-grade stress builds up a toxic residue of stress hormones in our system
There is also another downside to our restraint in the face of stressful situations.
You see the stress responses of worry, anxiety, frustrations or anger we give to these low-grade stress situations do not provide us with a means to burn-off those stress bio-chemicals. (Incidentally, such responses do not help us cope with the situation either). So as we move from one stressful situation to another, we tend to accumulate these unresolved experiences in our physiology.
What this means is that we are left harbouring within our physiology what are, in effect toxic bio-chemicals. Over the long term, these toxins gradually do us harm and reduce our ability to perform at an optimal level of functioning.
This long term stress effect also starts to harm not just your people but also your entire organisation. Thus we see that stress impacts your peoples’ health, ability to think clearly, their judgement, ability and willingness to collaborate, their enthusiasm, positivity and a whole bunch of other factors. As a result, stress is a real dampener on your organisation’s prospects for success.
The human givens approach to stress
So what is the guiding principle here? How do you avoid creating a stressful environment or stressful situations at work? Fortunately in recent years better scientific research has generated a clearer picture of the nature of the problem. And a clearer picture guides us towards a solution.
In particular there is now a new development in psychological understanding, called the “human givens” approach. Usefully, this new approach defines wider and more accurate parameters to stress.
In brief, the human givens approach explains stress in the context of a sophisticated set of emotional needs. By that I mean that we can now see that the stress response arises where people feel that they are unable to meet their inherent physical, emotional and psychological needs.
Working with, not against human needs alleviates stress
In the human givens therapeutic model of mental health, stress, suffering and mental illness arise when there is an imbalance or mismatch between our emotional needs and the inner resources that nature has provided for us to meet those essential needs.
On the positive side, you can achieve good health and high performance when you work with, not against these needs.
This of course leads us to the next question – What are these needs? Briefly these various needs are outlined as the need for:
- Security including safe territory to develop and work in. This includes freedom from fear of a range of factors. These include redundancy, technological change, major changes to work processes, physical intimidation and so on.
- Attention that is both to give and receive it. Researchers during the Hawthorne experiments as far back as the 1920s recognized this need.
- A sense of autonomy and control over the immediate environment and relevant tasks
- Being part of a wider community
- Enjoyment friendship and fun
- A degree of status within their group
- A degree of achievement and a feeling of competence
- A challenge, human beings need to problem-solve
- A healthy routine
- Some sort of meaning in life. In the work context this need can apply to having some sort of meaningful work to do. Hwever, you can also derive meaning from being stretched or from supporting the wider goals or ethics of the organisation.
From the research it is clear that when you don’t take these characteristics into account people tend to under perform.
The flip side to the human needs are the human resources you can access
The reason for this inevitable under performance is the flip side to the human givens approach. As touched on above, the human givens is not all about human needs. We come equipped with a range of innate resources designed precisely to help us get our needs met. The flip side is this; if you go some way to meet the human needs then you will unleash these inherent resources.
What we so often forget in management is one all-important facet of human nature. Over the eons the human being has evolved to become a highly sociable and collaborative problem-solving animal. The species didn’t get to survive against all comers without developing a repertoire of capabilities. And the constant struggle to survive as a group has honed these capabilities to excellence.
When you hire someone, believe it or not, these inherent capabilities are there at your disposal.
So why not make use of them? When viewed this way you can see that if you learn to utilize these capabilities then you are far more likely to succeed in building a dynamic and highly productive organisation.
It is the stress that infests our organisations that is often responsible for suppressing peoples’ ability to access and use their inner resources. And it is these inner resources that can so quickly transform a mediocre or even failing organisation into a world-class wealth generating enterprise.
Maintain a stressful working environment and you are quite simply sabotaging your own efforts at profitability
So where is all this stress coming from? The unfortunate fact is that stress is inherent to our typical management and planning practices. Ironically, management practices are literally undermining or even demolishing our ability to achieve excellence and highly productive work. By ignoring the human givens, managers are quite simply sabotaging their own efforts to make their organisations effective.
Stress in the collective system obstructs the flow of group activity
Modern research into business planning and psychotherapy clearly indicate that to be consistently successful, you need a method of management that naturally integrates two factors. The first is the “hard” requirements of sales, profit margins, cash flows, information systems, deadlines and production schedules. The second factor is the “soft” requirements inherent in your employees’ needs – the human givens. High productivity requires a healthy balance of both these factors.
But when stress arises it obstructs or blocks the coherence required to integrate smoothly all the diverse dynamics of any complex organisation. To generate a powerfully productive organisation, you need to facilitate or empower a low-stress environment. Given a low-stress environment, every single person in your entire workforce performs better by utilising and developing their innate inner resources to an optimum extent.
But what are these stressors?
In my book ‘Reinventing management thinking’, I identify thirty major stressors that disrupt the flow of operations, dampen performance and productivity.
Each of these thirty stressors falls into one of seven broad categories:
- The management style adopted by the organisation
- Types of management structure that can undermine or threaten emotional needs
- Strategic issues
- Elements of the management function that cut across human needs
- Physical factors
- Psychological or personal and relationship factors
- Government influence as a stressor
But how do you facilitate a low-stress environment?
Organisational stress audit
First off you need to assess the nature and extent of the problem. You do this by identifying exactly what “stressors” are prevalent in your organisation. Next you identify the exact impact each stressor has on the the emotional needs. The next step is to gauge the impact the stressors have on productivity and working performance.
At which point you can begin to develop a strategy to either rectify or alleviate the problems.
Remember some stressors will be inherent to the organisation’s environment or mission anyway. In these circumstances as in ‘major strategic change’ the stress is not simply going to go away. However identifying the problem always helps you to find ways to cope the best.
The transformational role of collaboration in removing organisational stress
The quickest way to tackle the inherent stressors within your organisation is to instigate a truly collaborative effort from all levels of management and staff. Remember that earlier point that the human being has a evolved to be a highly socialised, collaborative problem solving mammal?
Well this is precisely the one innate human characteristic that you can really exploit to eradicate stress from your organisation.
Just think, if you can somehow tap into everyone’s inherent ability to collaborate, investigate and solve problems, come up with new ideas and enthusiastically action them. If you could do this, you would be making use of ten to a hundred times the brainpower that you currently have available to work with.
I can tell you that the effect on an organisation is truly transformational.
A group effort but without the chaos
But, the next question then is how can you develop this truly collaborative effort without the whole organisation descending into chaos?
This is where the team or group planning procedures, of Hoshin Kanri play a vital and pivotal role.
Hoshin Kanri is, in essence, a highly structured method that allows the CEO or MD to instigate and control collaborative or team based planning involving everyone in the organisation. As such it has a powerful effect on reducing the stress levels in your own organisation. At the same time the planning initiates a powerful business development or improvement process.
Research based management techniques
The fundamental principles driving TBD are both practical and sound.
This is simply because TBD has evolved from a wide body of research, practical experience and scientific observation. In fact the original studies into group or “team planning” were carried out at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, one of the top three scientific research institutes in the world. And this initial research was specifically directed at finding an answer to the question – why do companies grow?
The upshot of all this research is that we now have a method to introduce a well structured, but natural sequence of events and procedures, into the team management and decision-making processes of an organisation that involves the whole team.
Live action planning workshops focus energy, remove chaos and alleviate the major stressors
This standard way of operating revolves around a series of collaborative live action planning workshops collectively known as a Business Operating Platform. It is these workshops, their sequence and structure that remove the potential chaos, focus the team’s energy and alleviate the major stressors that so dampen productivity.
Instead of the predictable chaos that might be associated with a free for all or bottom-up approach to running things, TBD has been spectacularly successful at instilling coherence, consensus, clarity, consistency and highly effective collaboration into a whole range of different types of organisations. Productivity has been shown to rise from between 25% to 50% in a short space of time.
Organisational stress audits and the Team Business Development programme
If you recognised any of these stressors as familiar to your organisation, or if you are aware that your organisation is under-performing and would like to know more about exactly how you can go about alleviating them, then just give Jeremy Old a ring now on 0845 0945 819 or email [email protected]
Without any obligation we can discuss just how we can conduct an organisational stress audit to ascertain the extent and impact that stress is having on your organisation’s effectiveness. From this we can see how TBD’s remarkably powerful team-based planning programme can be structured to help you create a truly effective and dynamic enterprise.
See our case studies for more details of TBD’s potential to transform your business profits.
In this groundbreaking book, the author explains the psychological reasons why collaborative management methods such as Hoshin Kanri are so much more successful than conventional top down command and control.
Jeremy is qualified to MBA level, with a post-graduate diploma in psychotherapy.