Stress Management

Stress Management

Many of us will deny we’re over-stressed even though it’s what we’re feeling. So we try to hide it and deal with it alone, even when we know we shouldn’t. How often does the same apply to organisations?

Just how good are boards at spotting the warning signs that things are becoming just too much? Whether for individuals or the organisation as a whole? It’s tricky to spot. Management feels bound to convey confidence in the boardroom: anything less feels like failure. And non-executives tend to focus on what they’re hearing rather than on what isn’t said. So this month we look at some ideas to help Boards gauge the risks of stress before the situation becomes too serious.

Good practices to consider…

Use Board/CEO private sessions to ask the CEO about the impact of change on the organisation and on the management team.  What stresses are building and what is being done to keep them within safe levels?

Things to avoid…

Trying to get a clear answer in the board meeting.   It’s better for this to happen in a directors-only forum to increase the likelihood of acknowledging a problem, particularly in relation to stress on individuals.  It’s going to be hard for any CEO to discuss stress in front of the management team, so save it for the right time.

Good practices to consider…

Look through a “stress lens” at what the organisation is going through: output growth, acquisitions, increased headcount, rising staff turnover, supply line constraints, new countries and markets, new competition, changing economic environments…  Individually, any might be challenging.  Together, they might add up to a situation which would put any organisation under a risky level of stress.  In that case, the board should be onto it without delay.

Things to avoid…

Waiting to raise the question until the next strategy day or budget discussion.  By then, things could have got much more difficult to handle.

Good practices to consider…

Probe the impact of significant and/or multiple project delays.  They might indicate that the pace of change has exceeded organisational capacity.   Or it might mean that delays in new systems are putting business as usual under rising pressure.

Things to avoid…

Looking at projects in silos.  Each one standalone might be only slightly delayed.  Or the ones on track might overshadow the problem children.  Put them together and a different picture might emerge.

Good practices to consider…

Look for the people-related warning signs: increasing staff turnover; deteriorating staff survey outcomes; rising absenteeism; loss of key personnel.  If there are unwelcome pointers, probe gently to gauge the executives’ explanation – you need to be confident that they are recognising the warning signs and reacting appropriately.

Things to avoid…

Pushing discussion of the people indicators into an “HR agenda item” (which typically might get squeezed at the end of the meeting).  The CEO’s report is a more appropriate point when the developments are starting to have strategic significance.  The “softer” discussion of stress might have to wait until the private session but some initial questioning on underlying trends will start to surface issues.

Good practices to consider…

Question the extent to which negatively-trending outcomes are indicative of excess organisational pressure: deteriorating audit findings, increased compliance issues, declining customer satisfaction, rising quality failures…

Things to avoid…

Looking at deteriorating outcomes in a disconnected way.  Each outcome might be explicable on its own or passed off as atypical.  But a set of unhelpful indicators might flag wider pressures.

Good practices to consider…

Look for learnings.  If something significant goes wrong (project failure, safety incident or fatality, big losses, failure to bring off a bid…) ask whether pushing things too hard might have been a significant contributor.  And how such stresses might be better managed in future.

Things to avoid…

Brushing a failure under the carpet once the immediate corrective actions have been taken.  Discussing the less readily identifiable causes might be difficult, maybe even speculative.  But getting an understanding of these will help to avoid future failures, and independent, more detached, directors are well-placed to ask the right questions.

Good practices to consider…

Understand the strengths and limitations of the Chair-CEO relationship.  Would the Chair recognise when excessive strain needed to be discussed between them?  Or have sufficient insight into the CEO’s personal circumstances to spot when private stress is starting to intrude with potential consequences for the organisation?   And would the CEO take it?

Things to avoid…

Regarding private as private.  It’s a tricky and sensitive area, and not necessarily one where the Board can encroach.  But the hard fact is that individual stress, for whatever reason, can lead to bad consequences for the organisation.  At the very least the Board should understand how far the Chair is attuned to such issues and risks, and in a position to have the necessary discussion at the right time.

Good practices to consider…

Ask the CEO about how stress amongst the executive team is managed.

Things to avoid…

Accepting a blanket denial that the problem ever arises.  That should be a warning sign in itself.

Good practices to consider…

Spot the signs in interactions with the wider management team.  Tiredness is sometimes obvious.  And some of the physical signs might take on more significance when considered alongside other indications such as lateness of papers, unnecessary defensiveness, or appearing less on top of the detail than usual.

Things to avoid…

Raising concerns directly with individual managers, whether in a formal meeting or informally.  It might put them in a difficult position and it’s impossible to gauge the openness of responses.  Concerns are best channelled through the CEO and Chair, in meetings at which management is not present.

Good practices to consider…

Understand the approach to management and employee welfare.   The Board should have some knowledge about the physical and mental health programmes and their accessibility, the level of take up and how far key individuals are encouraged to look after themselves.

Things to avoid…

Regarding welfare as an operational issue for HR to deal with.  That is where practical responsibility sits but the Board should at least have a periodic opportunity to understand how stress-related risks are managed.  And not just during a pandemic.

Good practices to consider…

Set a good example by caring for overstressed executives.  It’s in the board’s interests to help an executive get back to full performance – apart from anything else, it’s likely to be quicker and less costly than replacement – and it sends a good message to the organisation.

Things to avoid…

Acquiescing in executive burn-out on the basis that it  isn’t the board’s job to nanny people, or even that it sorts the wheat from the chaff.   Quite apart from the fact that good people are a scarce resource, employee expectations have changed.  The old idea of paying people to work until they drop and then getting rid of them is no longer best practice…



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