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Nigel Purse

The Oxford Group


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What leaders can do to manage workplace stress


Nigel Purse, chairman and director of The Oxford Group, on how effective communication from leaders can help to combat workplace stress.

Stress is now the single biggest cause of sickness in the UK, with over 105 million work days lost to stress each year – costing UK employers £1.24bn.

And research from the mental health charity Mind found that one in ten people has resigned from a job due to stress, while one in four has considered resigning due to work pressure. Their survey also found that three in five people said that if their employer took action, they would feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work.

Stress happens when the brain can't cope with being put under pressure and triggers a physiological response known as ‘fight or flight’, a hardwired reaction in the brain that perceives a threat to survival. In the modern world, this could be prompted by anything that we perceive as a threat – such as making a mistake and coming under fire from a colleague. The more frequently we come into contact with these stress triggers, the more overactive our fight or flight response becomes.

Much of human behaviour is driven by our emotional ‘mammalian’ brain. The amygdala, which is the part of the brain that sets off our ‘fight or flight’ responses, can’t tell the difference between a difficult conversation and a sabre-toothed tiger – and its job is made harder if there is already an expectation of a stressful situation.

Unconsciously we are constantly monitoring how we feel about the people around us – asking ourselves ‘How far can I trust this person?’ and looking for changes in language tone or facial expression that may make us suspicious. As we increasingly enter into a virtual world of communications, it has become more essential to reach out at a human level to build authentic, emotional connections. The stress hormone cortisol and the chemical oxytocin (which is linked to love, trust and attachment) also shows that exposure to the voice of a ‘trusted’ person reduces cortisol and increases oxytocin – resulting in less stress.

The 5 conversations programme looks at how the brain responds to difficult situations, and how stress could be exacerbated by an absence of trust and understanding at work. It identifies the main issues we face at work and gives leaders the tools to tackle those situations in a less stressful way. One of the 5 conversations is around challenging unhelpful behaviour. People in the UK were surveyed and only a third said they would feel confident to approach someone about their negative behaviour. It’s these kinds of situations that lead to people taking time off with stress, or leaving their job altogether.

The conversation starts with you as a leader recognising and acknowledging (even just to yourself) that a colleague is demonstrating unhelpful behaviour. This might be as extreme as being abusive towards other colleagues, or it could be that they are not managing their workload properly and it is impacting on the team. As a leader, it is a key part of your role to manage this situation in a respectful way. There are four suggested parts to this approach:

  • Establish the facts. Share your observations of the behaviour you’ve seen in a non-judgmental way and asking the other person how they see the situation.
  • You can then describe how the behaviour made you feel, and ask the other person about how they were feeling at the time.
  • As a colleague and a leader, there will be certain things that you expect or need from this person. Explain those needs and, in return, ask what they need from you and from other colleagues.
  • Tell the other person what you need from them in future and ask them for any requests they may have.

I have found this solution to be highly effective, as it seeks to understand the underlying causes of their words or actions, and gives them a chance to respond with positive intent. It also contributes to clarity by agreeing a framework which both parties can commit to work towards. A positive outcome should, in turn, strengthen the relationship between yourself and your team; increasing trust, performance and engagement and decreasing those ‘fight or flight’ reactions that lead to stress.

To find out more about 5 Conversations, go to

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Nigel Purse


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