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Ask the Expert : How can I retain productivity but reduce stress?

 

Question
I manage a young and energetic team of thirty. During the last year I’ve received more and more complaints from them regarding work stress. We’ve discussed some of the issues at team meetings. Can you suggest some practical tips which would help keep my team’s productivity up but make their work lives less stressful?

Answer
I spend most of my time doing consultancy work in a variety of businesses and this is a scenario that I have come across on more than one occasion. When I have seen this there have usually been a number of causes, you can decide which one, or more likely which ones are applicable to your team; any combination of these factors is possible.

The main possibilities are:

  • the age of the team
  • the makeup of the team
  • a change in the social structure of the team
  • a change in the type of work done
  • a change in the way the work is done/reported
  • a change in the amount of work done
  • the manager
  • the infectious nature of stress

One of the factors I research is how psychological health changes with age, there being a number of stressful times in a person’s life, the ages of 18 – 25 being one of them, men are particularly prone to stress at this age. Thus the age and the makeup of the team is crucial in that young men are particularly vulnerable to feeling that they are not succeeding relative to their peers. This vulnerability is because most young men are unrealistically optimistic about their futures at this age. When they hit the reality buffers they can feel a failure. Unlike most women of this age the vast majority of young men feel that they cannot talk about these feelings of failure and stress is common; this is the peak age range for male suicide.

Another characteristic of young males is externalisation of blame, which simply means that they blame anyone, or anything else for how they feel rather than themselves. Blaming fellow team members is very common and this can cause mounting stress within the team. This can make it difficult as a manager to identify the true cause of the reported stress and so address it.

The maintenance of social status is crucial in this age group and even the best intentioned changes at work can affect this. In most places of work there is an informal hierarchy of jobs with some jobs perceived as better than others and even some jobs seen as ‘punishment’ jobs. Social status at work is largely determined by what job you do and how good you are at it.  You get good at a task after a while, when a change occurs and you start a new task you are less efficient at that task. In a world where tasks are changed or rotated ‘too quickly’ workers in this age group do not usually have the depth of experience behind them and they can feel stressed if they feel that their social status within the group is challenged.

Again, this can be difficult for a manager who is trying to rotate their team to gain the maximum of experience. Some members of staff can be particularly vocal when they get an undesirable change yet seldom, if ever, attribute their objection to a loss of social status. This makes it hard for a manager to interpret the true cause of the problem as the message is usually not conveyed in the words used.

This age group are particularly resilient to an increase in the amount of work that they are required to do, yet this is one of the first areas that a manager looks at; this is seldom the cause of an increased reporting of stress. What might be the cause is an increase in the relative amount of work or type of work an individual, or group is asked to do. If an individual, or group, perceive that they are getting an unfair amount of, or type of work, relative to the rest of their colleagues, especially if they are not getting the recognition for their extra effort, they can often report feeling stressed rather than claim unfairness.

One factor that a manager can often overlook is their own effect on a team. If the manager is stressed for whatever reason, and that might equally be due to personal problems, this can have a substantial effect on their team. Increased stress in the team can result from such things as the manager being uncharacteristically short or excessively demanding or failing to give sufficient praise for good work. It is notoriously hard to be emotionally aware of the impact you have on others when you are stressed; and managers are no exception.

Another possibility is that it may simply be that the stress of a manager under pressure to perform ‘infects’ the rest of the team with their stress. Equally, one stressed individual (for whatever reason) in the team can infect the others. Once again, the team report an increase in stress but struggle to articulate why they feel stressed.

As to practical tips to address the increasing levels of stress, there is no simple answer other than to recognise the cause of the stress and to deal with that. Don’t forget that some of the causes will not be understood by your team and they may be reluctant to talk about other causes. Also beware that the message may not always be in the words used and it can be very difficult for a manager to see how they personally can be a cause of stress in their team.

Finally, these are just a few of the major causes of an increase in stress in a young team. Many of these factors will occur simultaneously making it even harder to pinpoint the exact cause of the stress and so affect a cure. Whichever intervention you use an experienced consultant will probably identify a variety of causes and potential solutions.

This article’s expert was Dr George Madine.

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