It is said that prevention is better than cure, and this also applies to stress, as stress can have devastating and far-reaching consequences. It not only affects the employee who suffers from stress, it also has consequences for their colleagues and the company in which they are employed.
Any responsible manager should hope that his or her employees do not go down with stress. Not just because you naturally want your employees to thrive and because stress is harmful on the personal level; it can also be expensive to the company, which may not only have to cope with a long-term sick leave and a worst-case scenario of that employee having to leave the company entirely and the company having to endure the costs of hiring and training a new employee.
Stress prevention is part of daily management
As manager, you have to realise that the responsibility for spotting and preventing stress is one of your own managerial tasks. It cannot be shifted to HR or work environment officers, and it is not enough for the company to just have a stress policy. As stress experts Malene Friis Andersen and Marie Kingston write:
“Stress policies, stress preparedness and stress management courses can be well-meaning and relevant and often make a positive difference. But for your employees, it is the way you do your day-to-day management that is crucial in preventing stress. Even the best stress policy will not make any difference unless the managerial style follows suit. The direct contact between the manager and the employee is crucial for whether and how stress develops” (Malene Friis Andersen and Marie Kingston: Stop stress. Page 70).
Fight stress before it occurs
Now, you might think that the most important thing for you as manager is to be aware of any stress symptoms in your employees. And that is, of course, important; but when the symptoms become apparent, it also means that the stress is already there. In which case, the accident has already happened. Therefore, we suggest that you take a step further back and look at what you can do to prevent stress from growing.
To make it simple, we suggest paying attention to three conditions that can prevent or identify stress before it occurs. These are 1) the balance between demands and resources, 2) stress preventive factors, and 3) an open and trusting culture of dialogue.
Find the balance between demands and resources
The simple definition of stress is that there is an imbalance between demands and resources. It is worth noting that these demands may come from the inside as well as from the outside. The outer demands are often the ones you make and are responsible for as a manager. These are the conditions and frameworks and deadlines that your employees have to meet or work under, as well as your expectations concerning their results and efficiency. Some of the major causes of stress are unreasonable deadlines, lack of information from management to employees and unclear management demands to employees.
It is your job as a manager to give your employees the necessary time for their work; to make sure they are well-informed about what to do; and that they know exactly what you expect from them. If there is an imbalance, you and your employees must make the necessary adjustments. Perhaps an employee needs further training in order to get a better match between tasks and skills.
The inner demands are those that come from the employee themself. They can be unrealistic, so the employee feels an imbalance between what they can and what they should be able to do. As a manager, it is your job to align expectations with your employees in relation to what is realistic and what is good enough. But also, to help them get better and develop.
Six factors that prevent stress
Six a day – that is a well-known dietary guideline. We often like to point to six stress-preventing factors. In brief, they sound like this:
- Influence and control. Give your employees influence, so they feel like they have some sort of control. Invite them to participate in organising how to carry out their work and within what deadlines. It prevents them from being stressed because they know the content and pace of their work.
- Role clarity. You must communicate clearly and unequivocally to your employees what their role is, and what you expect from them. They do not get stressed as easily when they know what their job is and when they are doing it well.
- Predictability. Make a plan and let it be known to your employees. If any changes are necessary, make sure to communicate them to your employees as soon as possible. It prevents stress when your employees know what to do and why, and when they do not have to fear surprises.
- Social community and support. It is important to get support and appreciation from one's managers and colleagues. It prevents stress when you feel that you are part of something bigger, from which you both contribute and receive something.
- Development opportunities. Support your employees in continuing to learn and develop, whether it is to become more specialised at what they are already doing, or by getting new job functions or more responsibilities. It can also cause stress if a job is or becomes too demanding.
- Job satisfaction. Everyone needs to feel that what they are doing is appreciated. Appreciation can be expressed in many ways. One of the most basic ways to show appreciation is to ensure that the salary is at a reasonable level in relation to the employee's competences and responsibilities, even though salary is usually not all the way up at the top of lists of requests from the employees. It is essential that you, as a manager, continuously give your employees constructive and individual feedback so that they know that you notice their performance and appreciate it. It counteracts stress to know that you are good enough.
Stress must be something you dare talk about
A difficult issue is easier to handle when you dare say its name out loud. It is important that you, as a manager, create a culture where your employees do not hide or suppress potential stress issues. They should feel that there is an open and trusting culture of dialogue – that stress is something that anyone can be affected by and that they can talk to you, their manager, about it.
Of course, this attitude must also be present at the employee development interviews and the regular operational and development meetings. But that is not enough. Your employees should feel at ease by knowing that they can always discuss any issues with you as they occur, including stress-related issues.
But you, as a manager, must also be prepared to raise the matter if you sense than an employee is showing signs of stress. Because stress may also cause a sense of shame. Many employees are not comfortable to talk about it if they are or are becoming stressed. They may think that they are not good enough or fast enough for their work. Perhaps they are afraid of what might happen if they go to their manager and tell them they have stress problems. Will some of their work tasks be taken away from them? Will they be first in line to lose their job if there is a need for layoffs?
As a manager, you need to be aware of whether an employee is getting stressed, and if so, you should have a dialogue with them about it. And a precondition for doing this is an open and trusting culture of dialogue in the company.