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Are you stressed?

Graham Yemm works with a wide range of organisations helping them, and individuals, to manage pressure and deal with stress issues more effectively. www.managingpressure.com

Stress can be brought on by both family and business issues – thus, doubly affecting family business owners. Graham Yemm examines what family business leaders can do to prevent stress from crippling their lives and businesses

Is stress something you recognise in your family business? Do you have support systems in place to help tackle stress and its related problems? Should you even worry about it? Have you worked out what it is costing you in both financial and personal terms? As a family business leader whose life is intertwined in both family and business matters – both of which can be major causes of stress – it is actually something you should, well, worry about.
 
In the UK, statistics suggest that the actual number of days lost to stress-related absence went down last year, for the first time in many years, but the cost to business and the economy went up by a further £1 billion to £13 billion. This equates to £531 per employee in lost working days. The knock-on effect to the business goes beyond this 'visible' cost, too. Once people are feeling a 'negative' stress, some or all of the following effects will start to appear:

- lower levels of commitment to work;
- performance and productivity diminish;
- absence levels increase;
- 'presenteeism' – they are present but don't do much;
- staff turnover increases;
- customer service levels suffer – with ensuing problems;
- quality of work is affected;
- problems attracting the right staff;
- reputation of the business suffers; and
- risk of litigation.

When these signs begin to occur, they will cost the business in many ways. So, it is something you need to deal with – ideally proactively rather than just reactively.

There is another very good reason to consider the implications. Should an employee suffer from stress or a stress-related problem, and it affects them seriously, they might have legal redress. The owners, directors and managers of the company may be liable under 'duty of care' legislation or disability discrimination laws.

There are many potential consequences and risks that can have a severe impact on employee and business performance. Thus, your organisation needs to make the issue something which you look to address proactively and take a preventative approach. If this cannot resolve all of the possible occurrences, make sure you have set in place the appropriate support mechanisms.

What is stress?
One definition of stress is "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them". A simpler option is to think of it as 'the internalisation of pressure – where it exceeds your ability to cope'. When we hear people say things such as "we all need some degree of stress" (as was recently reported in a survey in the UK press), what is really being said is that we need some level of pressure to galvanise us to action. These pressures can come from a range of sources in our work and personal lives – and within us, too.
 
The Pressure Curve (see the graph) shows what is meant by this. If the amount of pressure is not high enough, we do not feel the need to respond, so performance is likely to be down (called 'rust out' in certain circles). Have you ever gone into a shop or restaurant on a very quiet day? What was the response and service like? It's likely not to be very quick, due to boredom.
 
Get the pressure 'right' and we are triggered to respond in the most effective way and will operate at our 'optimal performance' level. On the other hand, if the pressure levels increase too much, the response is what most people think of as the classic stress problem, 'burn out'.

Burn out rarely happens suddenly. Rather, as the pressures build up, the symptoms become more and more obvious and the physiological and behavioural clues become more noticeable. If the situation does not change, and the pressure becomes more manageable, the person who is at this end of the spectrum will probably start to become ill as the body sends out signals to say it needs to protect itself against this burnout.

The challenge facing business owners and managers is to identify the 'optimal' amount of pressure for each person in their team. We each interpret pressures in different ways. What one of us may shrug off, another will think of as a crisis and vice versa. Add to this the various pressures influencing us externally, such as family and finances. Then there is the human capacity to create pressure on ourselves through having unreasonable expectations or by finding things to worry about over which we have no control.

What are the clues?
There are a number of behavioural clues that often indicate a person is feeling that the pressure is becoming too much. Other things, which can often be taken for granted, might also be implying that everything is not perfect. However, there may be actions which you think are demonstrating staff, and management, loyalty and commitment. For instance, in the UK:

- Over 5 million employees work an average of 7h 24min overtime per week – unpaid (effectively an extra day);
- 20% of employees work over 48h per week – as the UK is the only EU state to allow workers to opt out of the Working Hours Directive;
- The extra hours put in save employers £23 billion in salary, yet the UK is only 8th in productivity per worker out of 25 countries;
- Managers 'leave' 19 million days of untaken holidays to their employers (which equals £3.5 billion);
- Many of the managers surveyed contact their offices and check e-mails when they are away.

The attitudes underpinning the behaviours leading to figures above do not help. Many workers (and bosses) feel that colleagues not doing overtime or taking work home are not pulling their weight. Managers struggle to delegate, let go or even say 'no' to their peers, and some feel they are indispensable. Yet these figures can indicate that there are deeper problems that may lead to stress. Is it really fair to be taking advantage of staff or managers who are doing any of the things listed above? In the short-term it may help, but in the medium- and long-term it is less useful.

There are other clues indicating too much pressure. Behavioural changes can range from someone becoming quiet and withdrawn to becoming irritable and bad tempered. They may change to being uncooperative or indecisive. Some may begin to act more emotionally, or timekeeping and appearance may slip. The issue is whether managers spot these clues – and do something about them.

What can you do?
There are a number of ways to tackle stress within your company. The first thing is to acknowledge that it is, or might be, a problem. The next step might be to carry out a risk audit (as compared to a stress audit) using the following benchmarks, which highlight where issues may occur:

- The culture of your organisation: how does it approach work-related stress?
- Demands on people: how big is their workload and are they exposed to physical hazards?
- Control over their work and the way they do it: how much say do staff have?
- Relationships: how do you deal with bullying or harassment?
- Organisational change: how is it managed and communicated?
- Understanding of role: do individuals understand their role in the organisation?
- Support and training from line managers: is it adequate for the person to be able to do the core functions of the job?

How well would you score? Which areas need attention? Remember, prevention is usually preferable to cure in most things. Pay attention to these factors and your organisation can start to address stress early on, preventing it becoming a problem.

Working with the management to give them greater knowledge about stress, the clues, the consequences and the implications will help them to deal with their own teams more constructively. They will know how to take action earlier, when they spot the need. At the same time, they can assess themselves and learn to manage the pressures in a positive way to prevent them becoming stressed – or to avoid being a stress carrier to others!

Offering support to the workforce on fundamental stress awareness and management can have a significant return on investment both directly and indirectly. Coping strategies to deal with peaks of pressure and a more rounded, holistic approach and people will be able to handle themselves much better. As an organisation, you can also consider offering further support by investing in an Employee Assistance Programme with an outside organisation, where staff can have access to a range of services.
 
Everyone's response to pressure is unique. Just because you do not feel it is a problem, others may. Invest in managing the challenges proactively and put in support programmes for those returning to work and for all staff. You will find it pays dividends in morale, productivity, customer service levels and staff retention.

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