LIKE Victory in Europe and the Queen's birthday, stress is now considered to be so important that it has its own day. Stress Awareness Day, which was on Wednesday, hopes to raise awareness of the condition and to ultimately achieve a 20 per cent reduction in work-related stress levels by 2010.
Stress at work is serious: it costs pounds 3.7 billion and 13 million lost working days, according to estimates by the Health and Safety Executive, with the unknowable costs thought to be much higher.
'Stress makes people stupid,' in the words of Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence . It stops them thinking straight and doing their jobs properly. It makes them give up psychologically before they start.
It is also on the increase. In a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 40 per cent of employers reported a rise in stress-related absence. Innumerable individual surveys find employees complaining of increasing stress as workloads and pressures intensify, leading to steadily declining job satisfaction, particularly in the public sector.
Human Resources magazine talks of 'a silent epidemic'. The government is so concerned that employers now have a legal obligation to have effective stress-minimising policies in place in the workplace. But hang on, there's a bit of a contradiction here. Where are these pressures coming from? From the organisations that are now being enjoined to install stress-management schemes.
Stress is the physical symptom in individuals of the darker side of organisational life. In a recent pamphlet, Demos talks of 'hyperorganisation': the relentless spiral of pressure from capital markets (and governments apeing them) for ever more effort and efficiency - faster! longer! harder! Workloads, change, targets and management style all figure largely among stress generators, according to the CIPD. But even this is not enough. Increasingly, as Madeleine Bunting noted in her book Willing Slaves, organisations demand not just physical effort, but employees are made to feel guilty if they don't give their souls too. No wonder people feel stressed.
Unfortunately, applying stress-management techniques to this kind of systemic issue is like treating leprosy with sticking plaster. To stay with the medical metaphor, stress is the management equivalent of MRSA: an organisation-induced complaint for which palliatives and partial targets (who decides which 20 per cent are de-stressed?) are not an acceptable answer.
Like absence, with which it is closely related, stress doesn't need managing with yet more policies, techniques, and check-boxes. It needs getting rid of, so it doesn't require managing at all. That might sound fanciful, but it's not. Consider the causes of stress, classified by the HSE as to do with (overdemanding) workload, (lack of) autonomy, (poor) support, (low-trust) work relationships, (unclear) roles and (incomprehensible) change.
But turn these around and they become stress neutralisers rather than creators. Research on what makes for a 'good' job invariably emphasises control over work as the number one determinant, fol lowed by good relationships and support, a clearly understood role and security. As the Work Foundation points out, stress is psychological, pertaining to the individual.
Where the right psychological ingredients are in place individuals turn hard work and change into a positive challenge and opportunity for growth. And control over the job, clarity of roles and all the other elements of the good job aren't just stress-moderators for individuals: they are essential components of good management in the 21st century, the only way organisations can move from today's outmoded mass-production management systems to the flexible, customer-centred organisations of tomorrow.
Control, or autonomy, is critical. One of the most important qualities distinguishing 'lean' from traditional management systems is the placing of decision-making control with the people who do the work - enabling the assembly-line worker to stop the line when there's a problem, or the call-centre agent to decide individually how to respond to a customer inquiry or complaint, for example. This is more efficient as well as more humane, or to put it another way it eliminates human as well as material waste.
So why is lean management, despite some lip service, still so much the exception, rather than the rule? For the answer, we need to go back to control. Most Western companies are run from the top down. In this view, managers have to give orders (that's what hierarchy is for), otherwise workers wouldn't know what to do. Given that initial premise, it's not surprising that most managers respond to any performance challenge by tightening control, not loosening it. A good example is the way mobile communication devices, touted as a means of liberating people from office constraints, are in practice becoming the opposite: an additional means of surveillance which, in the words of one recent report, 'will simply translate into round-the-clock working for some employees.' Thus the remedy makes things worse. No amount of well-meaning policies can prevent these tendencies from generating more stress.
Turning organisations inside out so that orders come from customers, not remote senior managers and their computer schedules (more logical, no?) goes completely against the grain for most managers, whose instinct is always to turn the pressure up and then try to mitigate its worst effects. But this just increases their own stress.
Better to bite the bullet. Giving control back to people who perform the principal customer-related tasks not only removes one of the principal causes of work-related stress for individuals but given proper support it can halt the vicious circle of hyperorganisation and set in train a benevolent one of engagement and improvement that benefits the entire organisation. In other words, de-stress the system, not individuals: that way everyone benefits - including top managers, some of the (self-created) worst sufferers.
The Observer, 6 November 2005