Workplace stress has become a major issue; whether it is connected to the stressors of a workers compensation claim to allegations of bullying and harassment in the workplace or other workplace allegations. Similarly all of these issues are underpinned by the concept of what is reasonable management action.
Line managers are important components within the organisational cog and are often, if not always, the connecting point between employees and the organisation. Mindful of this important connection point, line managers must understand both what stress is and what is involved in creating and maintaining a safe and healthy workplace. Additionally, line managers must understand the required skills, abilities and behaviours needed to manage employees; especially in terms of reducing or minimising workplace stress.
Important to note that line managers can both cause and prevent workplace stress through the way they behave toward and interact with their employees. Similarly, identification and prevention of stress are equally important and line managers can act as the gatekeepers for maintaining a healthy work environment. For instance; line managers are often heavily involved in creating or managing work conditions and work flow.
Line managers need to ensure that stress is identified early as it occurs within their team environments and then most importantly, acceptable intervention is required in order to manage the stress and/or causes of the stress.
Large components of our workload involves stress or psychologically related workers compensation or common law investigations and workplace investigations involving stress caused or related to workplace stressors inclusive of the actions or perceived inactions by line managers. We intend to discuss in this paper, not just the negative points of how line management actions have been attributed to causing stress; rather we intend to add value through discussions of appropriate line management actions in the workplace.
Effective communication arguably lies at the core of a positive relationship between employees and their line managers and we have certainly seen evidence in workplaces of line managers using harsh tones when requesting actions and keeping employees in the dark, holding frequent meetings behind closed doors, thereby keeping staff uninformed as to organisational change and being excluded from input. These types of behaviours have certainly been attributed as contributing to stress. Positive communication might include regular informal chats with employees, keeping them informed of what is happening in the organisation and clearly expressing goals, objectives, plans and processes.
The approach to this communications is also vital to control stress in the workplace and again unfortunately we have seen many instances of ineffective approaches. Strongly represented in workplace stress investigations are issues such as line managers not listening to employees when they ask for assistance or being too slow to provide timely help, through to making decisions without consultation, as well as providing final solutions rather than discussing options. Positive actions might include providing regular team meetings and the opportunity for employees to air their views and to listen. Yes, it is sometimes grey, however; knowing when to consult and when to make a decision is a critical line management skill.
Organisations are increasingly expecting more productivity from fewer resources; is this impacting on accessibility? There appears to be a subtle increase of workplace issues such as; line management being constantly in meetings or saying to their employees, “Don’t bother me now – I am too busy.” Positive actions might include communicating with employees that they can talk to you at any time (obviously common sense must prevail). Having a real open door policy and talking to employees at their desk; rather than them always coming into see you.
Line managers having a perceived or real lack of knowledge about the job are often cited as a stress factor and importantly it is often raised that line managers do not take the time to learn about the employee’s job. An effective line manager has the ability to place themselves into the employee’s shoes and has enough knowledge and expertise to offer good and timely advice through understanding the role of the employee and how it fits into the broader operating environment.
This in-depth understanding allows the line manager to effectively manage workloads and resources (within their organisational constraints, of course). Our investigations have identified behaviours of line managers showing a complete lack of awareness of how much pressure employees or indeed the whole team are under. Additionally, many allocate further tasks without checking current workloads of the employees, delegate work unequally across the team and create unrealistic deadlines.
Positive behaviours might include; bringing in additional resources to handle the workload or adjusting resourcing models to make positive impact. Being aware of employee workloads and abilities when allocating tasks and supporting the team up the line to assist with not placing the team under additional pressure.
Managing workloads and effective processes are often closely linked and we have seen line managers not using consistent processes, sticking too rigidly to unworkable procedures and panicking about deadlines, rather than planning. Positive behaviours might involve the line managers asking themselves could this task or process be completed in a better way. This might lead to a consultative approach to reviewing the task or process to look for improvements and good line management should always plan and prioritise future workloads.
Problems continually arise in any organisational context and we are continually faced with evidence in investigations of line managers not dealing with problems which has contributed to stress in the workplace at both the employee and broader team levels. This has included; line managers listening but not resolving problems or not taking the issues or problems seriously and thereby taking no actions. Other times the problems are acknowledged; yet there is an underlying assumption that the problems will sort themselves out. Additionally, we have found that indecisiveness also contributes to stress.
Dealing with problems effectively requires line managers to follow through on dealing with problems on behalf of the employee or team and deal rationally with them. This may include breaking down the problems into manageable parts and develop action plans.
Underlying dealing with problems is creating and maintaining a safe workplace and managing conflict. It is essential to make sure everyone is safe at work and that all health and safety requirements are being met. We have observed on many occasions; line managers trying to keep the peace within their teams rather than sorting out the underlying problems. Other line managers have not addressed bullying and harassment or more scaringly, have taken sides without conducting an independent investigation.
It is essential to deal with conflict head on and to deal with it early. Line management should always act within their reporting regimes, but certainly listen objectively to both sides; know when independent or HR assistance is required. Furthermore, support investigations and all of those involved and follow-up after resolutions are reached.
There are clearly a lot of items in the mix in order to be an effective line manager and I am not suggesting for a minute that it is easy or straightforward. This complexity can inject stress into the life of a line manager and therefore the failure to manage these emotions can also contribute to employee or team stress.
We have observed through the evidence, line managers passing on stress to employees by acting aggressively, losing their temper or being unpredictable in moods. Yes, we all have the right to be human and do suffer from the affliction of emotions, yet maintaining a positive and calm approach is essential to ensure stress is contained and managed. If line managers feel they are losing control, they could walk away. If they lose their cool under the pressure, have the integrity to apologise and admit mistakes.
Ultimately to be a good line manager you need to understand your employees and your team. Be able to notice when an employee is acting out of character and be aware of different personalities and styles within the team. Take an interest in your employee’s personal lives and acknowledge employee efforts and results. Praise good work and don’t allow a blame culture to flourish; rather look to develop a local team culture that is inclusive, respects diversity and doesn’t allow for the concept of ‘my way is the only way’ to fester and make the workplace toxic.
Line managers must understand their own strengths and weaknesses and through this self-leadership therefore know when to seek advice and importantly knowing on whose door to knock on.
Chief Operating Officer