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The UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) identifies occupational mental ill-health (stress, anxiety and depression) as one of the two most common health problems at work, along with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Both are major causes of sickness absence, loss of productivity and unemployment. In turn, this presents a significant cost to society, with latest HSE figures conservatively putting the cost of stress, depression and anxiety at £3.6 billion in 2010/11.

 In any modern workplace, change is an important and inevitable part of everyday life. Yet, the latest review by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work links some of the broad, global, socio-political changes that affect large enterprises with significant occupational safety and health challenges – not least of all stress.

 Increasing globalisation, the establishment of a free market, advances in information and communication technology, new types of contractual and working time arrangements along with demographic changes are all impacting the way businesses – and employees – go about their daily work. Likewise, working life is also moving at a faster pace than ever before, forcing employees to either keep pace or get left behind.

 Financial implications

 In order to reduce the levels of work-related stress experienced by working people in Britain, HSE developed The Management Standards approach. It states that employers have a duty of care for their employees and are responsible for intervening to take appropriate control measures for mitigating any possible stress-related effects on employee safety and health.

 In reality however, getting employers to step up to this responsibility is no easy task, even if they do recognise the benefits. Yet, at an organisational level, the HSE also attach a significant financial cost to work-place stress and other psychosocial risks that organisations are failing to consider. According to its figures, work-related stress caused UK workers to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011/12. Meanwhile, the CIPD estimates that around a fifth of staff turnover can be related to stress at work.

 Tom Cox, a Professor of Occupational Health Psychology and Management and co-author of The European Agency for Safety and Heath at Work’s latest report ‘Calculating the cost of work-related stress and psychosocial risks’ makes the point that one of the best ways to boost the business case for improving the management of work-related psychosocial risks is to obtain a clearer perspective of the associated costs. In addition to improving wellbeing at work, Cox’s approach also advocates understanding and preventing known triggers of workplace stress, in place of the current reactionary approach many organisations apply after employees have already been adversely affected.

 Empowering front-line managers

 For this to be successful, enterprises require a practical means of preventing a culture of high-pressure and high stress from manifesting itself in lower productivity, absenteeism and higher than expected employee turnover. Which is precisely where a best-practice management operating system can help transition a high-pressure environment into a culture where employees and managers feel more in control and less a victim of day-to-day pressures.

 

This risk is especially high in service operations where the combination of fixed service levels, unpredictability in the volume of work coming into the operation and demands from projects and training provide competing pressures. Often when managers are not well equipped to manage these factors, this gets passed on to the frontline, culminating in stress for everyone.

 This is why, when it comes to managing operations, the importance of having a clear operating model in place cannot be understated. Specifically, this must ensure that staff understand the planned objectives for their teams or division and understand how well they are doing against their performance targets.

 The World Health Authority defines work-related stress as ‘the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope’. It also recognises that workplace stress is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.

 For this reason, it is essential that frontline managers have the skills and ability to exert control in an engaging and empowering way, so that frontline staff feel they are working in a well-organised environment and don’t have to contend with external pressures that they cannot control.

 Moreover, a culture of regular communication is essential to ensure that employees are engaged with the business and their role within it. Experience also shows that rewarding good performance and dealing with unsatisfactory work as soon as possible is important. If poor performance is not addressed early on, it can be stressful not only for the individual concerned but also for their colleagues.

Contact centres in the spotlight

Contact centres in particular have come under scrutiny in recent years for the way that they schedule workers tightly to meet the call demand at particular times of the day and manage people based on their adherence to the schedule and delivery of target call handling times. For these reasons, staff can lose focus on customer service and other important objectives, often culminating in high stress and high attrition.

Here too, when it comes to enabling managers to plan, schedule and manage work and people, the relevant skills training is essential. While performance metrics are important in a modern enterprise environment, it is important to focus on how they are used and not get so embroiled in the numbers that the people and processes get overlooked. For example, when monitoring performance data, managers need to be able to interpret the information and the variety of factors influencing overall productivity, such as the complexity of the work.

It is also important to ensure a consistent management approach across the enterprise. Often, management styles will differ considerably between different functions in the same building and especially those based across different sites. This is why, increasingly, organisations are realising the value of ensuring a consistent, best-practice management style and method. This means giving managers the time to manage rather than being too entrenched in the processes used to carry out the work. In turn, this goes a long way to cutting both management and employee stress.

 

Making best-practice the de facto standard

 

In many cases, much of the value comes in putting a process in place that didn’t exist before. With the right strategy, organisations can forecast demand and resource requirements more accurately than they could previously. Rather than forcing employees to deal with a sudden influx of work, it is often possible to predict any potential spike in activity. In turn, there is more opportunity for frontline managers to get together ahead of time to establish the best way to manage the additional work with additional resources or planned overtime, for example.

 Above all, this is about recognising the importance that establishing the right balance of work and time can have in terms of reducing stress for the frontline community. Likewise, engaging staff in the process and fostering a collaborative atmosphere gives them a clearer sense of purpose and connection with the business.

 By putting in place the right combination of skills, method, tools and training, enterprises have more opportunity to strike an appropriate balance between the amount of work that is required and the available skilled resource needed to carry out that work. In turn, this helps ensure that employees are not required to work faster than is reasonable or conversely that they are not left without enough work to do – culminating in fewer employees falling victim to work-related stress.

 Neil Bentley is chief knowledge officer, AOMi For more information, please visit www.activeops.com

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