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Thriving Under Pressure By Dawn Smith


StressedStress Down Day on 1 February aims to encourage people to take small steps to reduce stress in the workplace. Dawn Smith looks at approaches to stress management training, and some of the barriers to success.

Recent research from the TUC cited stress as the number one workplace problem, while the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) ranks it as the second biggest cause of occupational ill-health after musculoskeletal disorders. According to the HSE’s 2005/06 survey of Self-reported Work-related Illness, 420,000 individuals in Britain believed in 2004/05 that they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill.

Increasing numbers of companies are taking intervention measures such as stress audits, a change in company policy, and training for managers and staff – with the focus on preventing undue stress before it causes problems. “Stress has been going steadily up the agenda for the past 10 years. Any training used to be reactive, now it’s more proactive,” says Caroline Raymond, Training Director at Stress in Perspective.

But there are still barriers to tackling workplace stress through measures such as training, and one of the biggest is denial according to Professor Stephen Palmer of City University and Director of The Centre for Stress Management. “Some organisations seem to think that if you don’t do a stress audit, you don’t know that stress exists in the organisation so you’re not responsible for it, but that’s not the case. You are still responsible.”

Employers may shy away from tackling stress because they don’t know what the costs will be, he adds. The downsizing over recent years means there are simply fewer people doing more work, and that’s causing health and safety problems. “There are too many demands on employees; but employers are not keen to hire more staff,” he comments.

The ‘S’ word
A problem that can be faced by trainers is the perception that “stress is for wimps”, adds Palmer - despite the fact that research has shown anyone can suffer from stress. Caroline Raymond has come across the same problem: “The stigma of ‘this thing called stress’ is a challenge – especially in very macho teams,” she says. But when people realise that the training is practical and professional, and “not about Indian head massage”, they get over it, she adds.

Archie Mundegar at training company you:unlimited says the word “stress” is anathema to some senior managers because “they don't want to give the outward impression that 'this is a stressful place to work'.  Paradoxically, that indirectly leads to it being more stressful than it needs to be.” One way of getting around this is to re-brand the training to avoid the ‘S’ word. At you:unlimited, stress management training has sometimes been re-branded as ‘Thriving under pressure’ in order to make it more palatable. At training company Personal Energy, Philip Underwood says he calls his stress workshops ‘Developing Resilience’ because “some people don’t like the word stress, and don’t like me to use it”.

However, Caroline Raymond at Stress in Perspective believes in calling a spade a spade. “The more we run away from stress the more we make it worse,” she says. “It’s best to call it ‘stress’ if you want to really tackle it and get it in place.”

The role of managers
The most effective way to combat stress through training is to focus on the managers, says consultant Geoff Taylor, who runs stress and change management training courses for ICAS. “Of course, if you have the budget, educating the whole workforce is a good idea. But we tend to recommend (as does the HSE) that it’s better to train managers to understand how they can be proactive in preventing stress. If you can educate managers to recognise and deal with stress in their team that’s half the battle.”

Courses often cover the common factors involved in stress. As defined by the HSE, these are: the demands of work; the level of support (or lack of it); the level of control people have over what they do, how clear they are about their role; their relationships at work; and the amount of change they have to deal with (especially unexplained change). Some of these factors are within managers’ sphere of influence. For example, managers can help to provide clarity over team members’ roles and give staff more control over the way they work. “Managers who have a tendency to micro manage can cause stress,” says Taylor.

Caroline Raymond at Stress in Perspective believes encouraging managers to see the effects of their own managerial style can be an eye-opener. “We hear people saying things like ‘Oh my God, that’s me’ when we talk about a management style causing stress,” she says.

Changing perceptions
When it comes to training people to combat stress in themselves, awareness raising is often combined with relaxation techniques, advice about lifestyle factors, and an attempt to change perceptions and behaviour.

The workshops run by Stephen Palmer at The Centre for Stress Management teach cognitive behavioural and imagery skills that people can use to help them deal with stress. One common scenario is the perfectionist who walks into the workplace with a fixed attitude, pushing themselves and others to achieve 110% and causing stress in the process. “Often, employers just want a decent job done and not 110% perfection,” says Palmer. “Cognitive skills help people to analyse their thinking and apply a more flexible attitude.”

Another common situation is the person who is faced with making a presentation. “People picture themselves making mistakes,” says Palmer. “It’s possible to replace that with helpful coping imagery and to practise it in the mind’s eye.”

For Philip Underwood at Personal Energy, perception is everything. “The meaning you give to what you see depends on whether you have a negative or positive reaction,” he says. “If you see someone frown, you may think they are upset with you for some reason, or you may wonder if they’ve got indigestion. We teach people that the real cause of stress is our emotional reaction to life events.”

A similar approach is taken by Mike George, Lead Trainer at Reed Learning. “Most people believe that other people and situations cause their stress. But they do it to themselves,” he says. His stress management courses aim to help people recognise that they cannot control other people’s behaviour, only their own, and that their stress is a response – it consists of thoughts and feelings that they alone create. He says:“It really does take the stress out of a situation if you realise you can’t control it. There’s a sense of relief. All you can control is yourself.”

Long-term change
George emphasises that changing perceptions and behaviour doesn’t happen overnight, and that the “real workshops” are the office, the home, and the social situations where trainees can apply what they have learned. “No course can teach people to manage their stress. People are living an illusion if they think any course does that. All I am doing is raising their awareness and helping people to see the small reactive things they can do in the real workshops. They have to work it out for themselves.”

A course or workshop can make a difference, but according to Stephen Palmer “you need two days at least” to get some kind of cognitive change and it’s helpful to separate the two days’ training if possible.

For long-term change, coaching can help people to develop the personal skills they need to cope with pressure. “Optimists deal better with pressure than pessimists,” says Geoff Taylor of ICAS. “People with a high opinion of themselves will deal better with pressure. A training course can give a better awareness but counselling and coaching will help people to develop those skills over time.”

One advantage of coaching is that people, especially those in senior positions, are more likely to be open about suffering stress in a one-to-one session, says Archie Mundegar at you:unlimited. “When coaching senior management, stress is something that often comes up. In a group situation they can’t always be candid enough to admit to it. They might not even be able to do this in a coaching situation, but it’s easier.”

The simple things
While coaching to develop personal skills is at one end of the stress management training spectrum, small changes in everyday behaviour can make a big difference, says Mundegar. When evaluating the stress management training provided to clients, he has found that a key message from many trainees is “the simple things” have helped them the most. “Sometimes we tend to get too technical in the training world,” he says. “In terms of stress management, the stuff that makes a difference to people may be taking a moment out of the hurly burly to think about it, and get a few tips. Most people will find there are only a couple of key thoughts they need which help them in a given situation.”

Stress-reducing lifestyle changes are among those simple, everyday things which have helped trainees. “Looking at the feedback, people say for example that they are eating better, or they are not worrying about something so much because they go and do something else instead,” says Mundegar. “What works for many people is the bog standard, non-sexy stuff like going to bed early, doing some exercise once a week, and not reading their e-mails while they’re eating their lunch so that they get a proper break.”

Further information

Centre for Stress Management
Personal Energy
Reed Learning
Stress in Perspective


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