It’s International Stress Awareness Week (5th to 9th November), this week is important for focusing attention on an issue that’s so widespread, become so hardwired into modern working lives that it could be forgotten – that it, if there are not fresh insights and resolve to do something about it. Evidence of the impact of day-to-day stress on physical and mental health, and the resulting cost to employers, is well-established.
Maybe what’s needed now is a week that’s concentrated solely on the root causes of the phenomenon. Sir Cary Cooper has again pointed a finger at the major one: “in this country we have technically competent managers…but they don’t have emotional intelligence. We just have the wrong kind of line manager.”
It’s a generalisation, but one that so many people – including managers themselves – will recognise as a reality. Soft skills aren’t just a means of motivation, the more subtle approach for managers to get what they want: stepping up the pressure while giving a warm and understanding smile. Managers need soft skills in order to defuse and manage situations that create unnecessary stress. That means creating an environment where employees can feel able to be themselves, raise issues when they need to, be confident that problems will be resolved in grown-up ways.
For this, managers need good ‘conversational intelligence’. They need to be able to pick up on and handle low-level disagreements as well as more serious disputes – handle them effectively, not try and keep a lid on problems, hope they go away, and then resort to formal processes if they really have to (and when relationships have broken down, and gossip and bad feeling are rife).
Learning new skills won’t do it. It’s all about changing mind-sets and then behaviours, and making them stick in day-to-day working lives. And this is what we’re addressing head-on with employers via the new ABC (Achieving Behavioural Change) programme. This starts with conversations and their role in forming the work environment, team and whole organisational culture, how to handle those difficult conversations; looks at difference and diversity and how it can be harnessed for the good of organisations; ways to re-invigorate team relationships; and ultimately to deliver a workplace where people want to be.
Dealing with high and rising levels of workplace stress is the all-important goal, but do we need a conversation awareness week instead?