Work carried out: consultancy, risk assessment, and training
Northumbria Probation Service (NPS) employs around 600 staff and was looking to tackle stress as an organisation. The core work of the organisation is pressurised and can be stressful and NPS, like many similar organisations, faced some real difficulties in this area. Evidence, both qualitative and quantitative appeared to show that stress levels were high in some areas, particularly among those carrying out the core functions of the organisation i.e. the delivery of probation services to offenders.
NPS identified that something needed to be done as an organisation to tackle stress at work, assess risk, and develop specific strategies to prevent and reduce stress where reasonably practicable. There was a consensus right across the organisation that action was needed, and that managers, employees and their representatives all needed to be involved in developing solutions.
1.NPS set up a “stress steering group” involving managers at all levels, HR, Training, Trade Unions (UNISON and NAPO), and Health and Safety.
The main tasks of the steering group were:
- developing appropriate and effective policy
- organising a risk assessment and benchmarking exercise
- developing appropriate training for managers and staff
- developing support structures and services as needed
In Equilibrium were approached to provide a range of stress management services and worked closely with NPS to help them achieve their objectives in this regard.
2. Policy development
In Equilibrium provided consultancy for the development of a stress policy. For example, In Equilibrium facilitated group work where the steering group put together, discussed and agreed by consensus the key elements and structure of the policy. The policy had to take into account existing procedures, structures and protocols. Meat was then put on the bones of the policy. It was agreed how sections should be worded. Work done contributed substantially to the final policy, which was later finalised by the working group, then approved internally by senior management.
3. Risk assessment and benchmarking
In Equilibrium provided a stress audit to assess stress risk across the organisation and provide a benchmark against which future progress could be measured. The stress audit involved a survey that enabled both quantitative and qualitative analysis. The results indicated where risk was highest (among probation officers) and what the likely causes of stress were (high demands and low control). Our conclusions and recommendations influenced the development of control measures designed to minimise risk e.g. training development priorities, support structures.
4. Training for managers
Following policy development and risk assessment, In Equilibrium facilitated a meeting with the stress steering group to design training for managers. The course was tailored to meet NPS’s needs and priorities. A one-day training course was developed and delivered by In Equilibrium to all those with line management responsibility in the organisation. Management training was seen as a priority because managers were the key people involved in implementing the new stress policy.
5. Training for all employees
Once all managers were trained, the working group met to discuss and agree how training to all staff should be organised, delivered and prioritised. In Equilibrium provided consultancy and advice at this meeting, and agreed to support NPS through provision of appropriate resources and training materials.
The training for managers was highly rated by participants and received an overall satisfaction rating of 91% using NPS’s own evaluation – all participants rated the course overall on a scale of 1 (no value) to 6 (excellent). The score here means that 91% of participants scored the course at a 5 or 6. Comments from participants also provided some depth to how the course was perceived:
“A very useful course with a very welcome practical element; easy to understand whilst thought provoking and with good pertinent and useful techniques to apply”
“Offered some practical aids to managing my own stress and that of staff; it has come at a very appropriate time given recent re-structuring and sudden increase in workload and the inevitable implications for staff; the information packs will be very useful guides for my role”
Training for all staff
Training for all staff to provide them with tools and techniques to manage stress more effectively delivered by the stress steering group. In Equilibrium have provided the training materials.
The stress steering group organised a major conference for all NPS staff focussing on employee wellbeing to raise awareness of stress-related issue, and in particular, convey the message that stress should not be seen as a personal weakness but as an issue for the whole organisation.
Employee care and workload prioritisation
An ‘Employee Care and Workload Prioritisation Group’ was set up to discuss stress risk related to excessive workload, and come up with strategies to minimise risk from this source. The group has raised awareness across the organisation of the results and recommendations from the stress audit, and is continuing its work in finding solutions that are practicable for managers and employees.
The stress policy has now been fully implemented across the organisation.
Effects of management training
The training for managers has influenced management practices and the way stress-related issues can be raised and dealt with effectively. For example, managers in NPS already had structured one-to-ones with staff on a monthly basis (this is common in social work and criminal justice organisations and called ‘supervision’). Discussion of stress-related issues involving open 2-way communication is now being built in to these one-to-ones, to improve early identification of stress-related problems. Managers and staff will then be able to work together to develop practical action plans to tackle issues, reducing the risk of stress-related illness (and absence associated with it).
It is difficult to precisely quantify the benefits longer-term as assessing and managing stress risk is a process, not an end in itself. However, it is clear that this work has influenced both policy and practice, and the culture of the organisation. NPS have fed back that they believe this work will have significant long-term benefits both for the organisation and for individual employees in terms of reduced risk of stress and improved health and wellbeing
Louise Palmer, 36, is co-founder of 7days, a management consultancy business. She earns £200,000 a year and lives with her husband Adrian, 42, who works part-time, and their seven-month-old son Archie, in Buckinghamshire.
There are several factors that make her feel stressed: being the family's principal breadwinner; making sure her employees are paid; the constant pressure to win new business; and worrying about whether she spends enough time with her son.
But she thrives on the pressure of her job and, because she feels largely in control of her life, says that her stress levels are manageable.
'Of course, I feel stressed because running your own business is a 24/7 commitment. It is very difficult to walk away and switch off or to wind down. However, when I think about my mother, who had to worry about whether she had enough money to put food on the table, I think she would have encountered far greater levels of stress than me. Having had a childhood without much money, I think that would be the biggest source of stress anyone could have.
'I know that, if the worst comes to the worst, we could sell the house, downsize and have an easier life.'
The tank driver
John Nelson, 50, drives a petrol tanker. He earns £29,000 a year and lives with his wife in Cumbernauld, outside Glasgow. He has two adult children who have left home.
He says life has become increasingly difficult for manual workers over the years because all of the fun has gone out of work.
'It is all about getting a pound of flesh from human beings. Businesses are all about profit and people feel much more stressed because of that. Years ago, most big organisations would have a social club, a football team, a pipe band. But that has all stopped. It is just work, work, work and no play.'
A 'blame culture' and the increasing use of short-term contracts have, says John, created a climate of fear and insecurity. 'You can work all year doing an excellent job and no one will say anything, then you do one thing wrong and you'll be crucified. '
John says long shift patterns, boredom, working in isolation and the plethora of health and safety regulations that have to be adhered to also create immense pressure. 'I have learnt to switch on when I start work and switch off the minute I leave. But some of the other boys can't.'