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Easing the Global (and Costly) Problem of Workplace Stress
Business Journal

Easing the Global (and Costly) Problem of Workplace Stress

Stress is reportedly the leading cause of long-term sickness for workers around the world. But relief is in sight.

A Q&A with Damian Byers, Ph.D., executive director of people, learning, and culture at the Benevolent Society

When you look at psychological injuries, you often find extraordinarily dysfunctional or unhappy teams.

In Australia, Canada, and parts of Europe, psychological injury is recognized as a basis for workers' compensation claims. Though definitions vary, workers' psychological injuries include those that are directly related to work, such as being subject to a robbery, violence, or harassment in the workplace. Or they are secondary to a work-related incident, such as depression resulting from a physical injury.

In its 2013 Absence Management report, CIPD, an association of human resources professionals, states that stress is a leading cause of short-term and long-term absence. But stress can cause far worse problems and can even be fatal. The suicides of Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter and Zurich Insurance Group CFO Pierre Wauthier were both attributed to workplace stress. This topic has been of particular interest to Gallup, as the company's research reveals that there is a significant relationship between work, stress, and health -- and that disengaged workplaces predict an increase in employee depression and anxiety.

Damian Byers, Ph.D., executive director of people, learning, and culture at the Benevolent Society, Australia's oldest charity, has noted this connection too. Byers says that Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey can provide an early warning of potential psychological injury. As Dr. Byers discusses in the following conversation, monitoring employee engagement can help business leaders pinpoint "hot spots of concern" and step in before someone gets hurt.

Gallup Business Journal: Why has psychological injury become such a concern in the workplace?

Damian Byers, Ph.D.: Health and safety in the workplace is often looked at from a cost point of view. Psychological injury has become a well-recognized category of injury, and the rate of increase is skyrocketing. So the people who are most vociferous about managing it tend to be the finance people. And because of the risk exposure associated with any kind of injury, there's often interest from [corporate] boards as well. But they're usually interested in aggregated macro lag indicators, such as lost-time injury frequency rate or other kinds of overall incident rate indicators, not individual cases.

The problem is that boards and finance people are a long way from the day-to-day work of a line manager. Line managers don't see the cost of psychological injury, but they're accountable for it because they're accountable for team performance. And because the metrics of injury are macro lag indicators, they don't guide decisions or change behaviors for anybody. Lagging indicators don't tell people what they need to do.

What causes psychological injuries?

Dr. Byers: It's almost always [the result of] a failure of management practice and process, particularly a breakdown in the management relationship. In most of the cases that I have analyzed in the organizations that I have worked in, we're talking about bad manager-worker relationships and a well-established, unproductive, poisonous dynamic within a team. These dynamics are the result of poor people management practices and often poor people management tools and policies. The remedy there is well and truly in the hands of senior line managers.

But if senior leaders see only lagging indicators and line managers are actually inflicting the wounds, how can senior leaders spot a poisonous team dynamic?

Dr. Byers: What's happening with workplace health and safety [points to] what's happening elsewhere in the organization. Psychological injury [claims] usually have a long gestation time, and we can identify the risk factors for them quite readily: the quality of management on the one hand and the efficacy of human resource and capital management processes on the other.

The Q12 is an extraordinary tool because it's actually a model of quality management. It tells managers what they need to be good at doing. The Q12 [paints] a picture of legitimate employee needs. And if these legitimate needs are not met, then problems will inevitably arise. The team's Q12 results will capture the degree to which these legitimate needs are being met and will therefore present a very clear advance signal to both the manager and the senior executive group.

To me, the Q12 gets you out on the front foot, as we say in Australia. It gets you in front of your problems by saying, "Get good at this, and you will deliver what all human beings need in order to perform effectively. Do that, and you'll get ahead of your problems." Secondly, once we actually [use] the Q12, we get a picture of the hot spots of concern. If we look at the low-engagement teams, we get early information about potential high-risk sites -- and that's where we need to intervene, before the problem becomes so bad that it results in a psychological injury.

So are you saying the Q12 can be an early warning system?

Dr. Byers: Right. And it can transform the way managers manage. It's a particular model of engagement that's robustly linked with high performance outcomes. That's a big differentiator.

But I'm saying that there's another use [for the Q12]. Workplace health and safety people are systematically marginalized from decision making and from influencing organizations. So if you wanted to be kind of cunning about it, position the Q12 as the tool that does all the things we know it does for engagement and performance, but also as an early identifier of teams that are likely to produce risk outcomes if you don't [intervene] early.

The question is, what do you do then? And the answer is, you just get managers to manage properly, that's all. Managers need to understand that they have the privilege of leading a whole human being. If they want to understand how to do that, these 12 propositions describe what they, as managers, need to deliver on. If you don't have managers who can engage, [the result is] a whole lot of things that are beneath the surface and unhealthy, which, when they get to a certain breaking point, manifest in a stress claim.

And they can cause a significant loss of productivity.

Dr. Byers: When you look at psychological injuries, you often find extraordinarily dysfunctional or unhappy teams. So it's wrong to focus on the cost of those disability claims alone. It's actually the negative impact of the total team dynamic that produces that claim, which is characteristic of the broader team [dynamic], including a very stressed manager. Managers are failing as much as anyone else, but the organization has a big responsibility for that [failure] because the organization itself has failed its managers. If line managers knew what they were doing -- if they used the Q12 the way I'm suggesting -- they would see problems well before they result in damage.

What are some of the warning signs of toxic management that can result in psychological injury claims? What signs should senior leaders watch for -- and what actions should they take when they see them?

Dr. Byers: In the first instance, senior managers should review the results for all teams across their organization and focus particularly on managers whose scores are below, say, the 20th percentile in Gallup's Q12 database. A score of that kind serves as an early warning sign -- a key indicator -- of a team that is not being well-managed and that is likely therefore to be a site of stress. Senior managers should then look closely into what is going on in that team and promptly support the manager in attending to [his or her] core tasks. That manager should then be held accountable for driving action required to improve the team dynamic.

But after that, senior managers should take the opportunity to ask the questions "How did the team -- and the line manager -- get into the situation they are in in the first place? What organization factors contributed to that dynamic?" They are likely to find a whole range of contributing factors: poor recruitment, unclear position descriptions, poor performance management, confusion about legitimate supervisory authority or team and reporting structure. Though engagement is driven by line manager capability and skill, all managers operate within a context -- and that context either helps or hinders them in doing the job that they are expected to do.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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