It should be part of the normal management system of most organisations much as reward or health and safety are today. Sadly and misguidedly, identifying stress and building resilience is a rare topic in many boardrooms and is often only dealt with in an ad-hoc and inconsistent way after a crisis has happened. Many managements now need to exercise their proper duty of care for the mental health and wellbeing of their employees particularly with regards to identifying and quantifying the level of stress they are under and their levels of resilience to handle it.
Many text books have been written on leadership and management but few have examined the subject so as to answer questions like:
- Whether stress in the management system is always positive or motivational or always negative and destructive?
- What are the most common drivers of stress in an organisation and does it affect all staff equally?
- How can stress be recognised, quantified reliably and mitigated before it causes a personal or business crisis?
- What is the real cost of stress?
- How can stress be most effectively mitigated and resilience to stress improved?
- Do national cultures have differing attitudes to recognising and coping with stress?
- Between the individual and the organisation, who has the main responsibility for recognising stress, quantifying it and following a programme to mitigate it?
Yet ignoring stress and the need for resilience has been behind many notable failures. These have cost real money from excess staff turnover, have been directly responsible for suicides and have been the underlying cause of major reputational damage through either individual or collective irrational behaviour. Stress can induce major shifts in attitudes, skew judgments, foster a lack of empathy, drive feelings of resentment, anxiety and in some, depression. Having collections of people in such a state leads to toxic cultures, low engagement, limited productivity and innovation. This ultimately exposes businesses to great risk. All risk committees should take note.
The detrimental impacts of stress are now so well researched that in May 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised and defined burnout as an “occupational phenomenon, resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, characterised by symptoms such as “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
Fortunately over the last few years, large strides have been made by progressive employers who recognise that mental health of its employees must be an important part of the management agenda. They are now providing training, mentoring and coaching to deal with stress. They are setting up wellbeing committees to focus on the issue and investing in more onsite support. Some employ full time professional counsellors to be available for staff while others are investing in key staff as ‘mental health first aiders’ to provide a first line of support. Emergency communication mechanisms sometimes tied in to the whistleblowing procedure have been set up. Other activities include education sessions on wellbeing related topics such as mindfulness and enabling access to classes such as yoga or meditation to promote stress recovery.
Despite these many well-meaning efforts, crying for help because you recognise you ‘cannot cope’ is considered in some cultures as showing evidence of great weakness. Stress can often be rationalised with thoughts like ‘it’s just a phase we are going through’ or similar. A lack of awareness or ‘bottling it up’ may be just the worst for the individual and organisation, so disclosure may need to be encouraged in more formal ways. The issues are there whether or not they have yet come to the surface.
To address this need for disclosure, a range of approaches have been recently developed that are best in class and build on the research of occupational psychologists to enable stress and resilience to be identified and measured. They use techniques that have their origins in psychometrics to enable individuals’ mental, physical and social health to be disclosed and measured. The best are neither so ‘academic’ that results are difficult to interpret nor are they so simplistic as to invite legitimate challenge .
Those participating in any such disclosure must be persuaded that the exercise is properly confidential, will be constructively received and will lead to action(s) to help. Employees should be helped to recognise their level of stress and given access to practical tips and tactics to build their resilience.
One such approach is AURA, an online tool to encourage both disclosure and quantification of stress and resilience of individuals. It uses a well-framed questionnaire completed online in much the same way that engagement is customarily measured. All such data that is collected can be calibrated, reported by individual, teams, seniority, organisational group and culture and analysed as needs be to stimulate action. This enables employers to shine a light on, and pinpoint issues, whilst accounting for the fact that there will be different issues in teams/ countries.
The calibration of stress has now evolved into a generally accepted standard along with the behaviours that are the determinants of each. Individuals can thus be identified as exhibiting Resilience (no risk) through Denying (significant risk) to Crisis (extreme risk) and with intermediate classification in between. A simplistic ‘score’ of resilience can also be calculated to show where an individual or unit is on the continuum. This continuum is set out in Exhibit 1 below .
Exhibit 1: A standard for measuring resilience
AURA Model: The Burnout-Resilience Continuum
AURA ranks resilience levels on a well-defined continuum ranging between fully resilient and crisis
Any call for action must thus be fact based, following rigorous data collection with subsequent clear presentation. However, outputs must be tested against the realities of circumstances, compared with peers and benchmarks, if relevant, and sense be made of the data with a special understanding of any outliers.
It is individuals who are experiencing the impact of stress yet the organisation in which they work may create its cause. For this reason analysis and reporting must be at both an individual level at the organisational level or levels appropriate to the hierarchy of responsibility. The planning and implementation of mitigation options should be at all relevant levels.
This can be illustrated through mentioning some of the most common causes of undue stress and their potential mitigants that typically arise from this sort of exercise.
Exhibit 2 – Some common causes of stress and their potential mitigants
The recognition and measurement of resilience should not be a once off exercise. Over time the resilience of individuals can be improved. Just as the physical work environment is important to physical health so a positive social and cultural environment is an essential component of mental health. Thus such exercises to recognise stress and inform resilience should not be one-off but should be incorporated into the standard recruitment, training, evaluation and compensation processes.
The recruitment and retention of the best people and the desire to be a ‘destination employer ‘is now a major competitive frontier. Organisations can no longer afford to ignore the mental health of employees. They also cannot avoid the risk of the sometimes disastrous consequences of not responding to much needed cries from the heart. With recent developments help can be easily at hand.
Rachel Austen, CPsychol., MBPsS, MSc.
Director, Austen Advisory Limited