Dealing with workload stress

It would seem logical that too great a workload is easy to spot. However, many working cultures seem to thrive on a deadline driven, pressured environment, and staff and managers alike can work for many months with an assumption that the stress they are feeling is normal.


It would seem logical that too great a workload is easy to spot. However, many working cultures seem to thrive on a deadline driven, pressured environment, and staff and managers alike can work for many months with an assumption that the stress they are feeling is normal.

It would seem logical that too great a workload is easy to spot. However, many working cultures seem to thrive on a deadline driven, pressured environment, and staff and managers alike can work for many months with an assumption that the stress they are feeling is normal. It can build up in such a way that they accommodate the increased pressure. Sometimes the feeling of being overloaded is internalised, i.e. they blame themselves for not ‘coping’ and the company culture backs that up.

The feeling of being overloaded can happen at any level within an organisation, but as managers we have a responsibility to our staff to identify when workload is the primary issue involved in causing stress and to deal with the underlying causes. Reducing workload or changing working practices for staff is easier said than done. But we do have a responsibility to act. What can and should we do? In June, the CIPD and HSE published the second phase of their management competencies, the aim of which is to further encourage managers to adopt behaviours to reduce stress at work.

One of the four competencies is ‘managing and communicating existing and future work’, as it spells out clearly that managing workload is a vital component of preventing stress. Looking at how workload and projects are managed is a sensible, no nonsense approach to take. The competency focuses on three aspects:
• proactively managing a team’s work: monitoring workload, stopping extra work being taken on and prioritising future workloads.
• problem-solving: following up problems on a team’s behalf and dealing with problems as soon as they arise.
• empowering/participative: correctly judging when to consult and when to make a decision, ensuring that team members are given the appropriate levels of responsibility/are kept informed about what is going on in the organisation.

Few of us would quibble that a good line manager is problem-solving and empowering/participative. However, the first of these does make a significant assumption – that a line manager has direct control over workloads. This is not always the case and all too often new projects, case work or client work is thrust upon us and our teams. It is when workloads can’t be controlled that problem-solving in particular can be such a vital competency to possess.

There is no easy answer to the perennial problem of workload as an incoming issue and that is where the new competencies are somewhat limited. However, despite this, the stress management competencies are an excellent place to start for a line manager needing to spot and monitor when workload might be a stress trigger.

Ultimately, one fundamental realisation will bring these competencies to life for managers helping them ‘live’ the behaviours rather than just ‘exhibit’ them.

Every manager is first and foremost responsible for themselves, not just their staff. If you don’t monitor your own workload then being able to act calmly in pressured situations, being consistent, and being a good role model will prove incredibly difficult. This isn’t easy to do, but begin doing it for yourself and it will be easier to help your staff. Fail to do it and you could pay a heavy price in your physical and mental health.

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