Reporter 458, 6 November 2000


Let’s address stress

JT Scawthorn
School of Chemistry

I know I speak for others when I comment on a University environment in which there appears to be little regard by senior management for the welfare and wellbeing of support staff, many of whom are suffering from increasing levels of stress and anxiety resulting from pressures applied to achieve ever-greater levels of productivity.

The irony is that such a situation, caused in the main by bad management, is a major cause of reduced productivity and increasing time off work.

Stress is likely to occur where managers behave in an authoritarian way, offer no constructive support or advice, or are untrained and incompetent.

The popular view that stress is ‘the bosses’ disease’ is a myth. Research has shown that those in higher management positions suffer less stress-related health problems than lower grades of staff. The often-quoted Whitehall study of civil servants found that the lowest grades had a three-times greater incidence of heart disease mortality than did top civil servants.

Although different people will react differently to specific stressors, researchers have identified a combination of three factors, in particular, which put people at increased risk from stress. These are – lack of control over the job, having no opportunity to influence one’s own work situation; job overload or underload – both quantitative and qualitative, i.e. the amount and pace of work and the skill/training required; and lack of support – from supervisor, colleagues, etc.

These factors are much more likely to be associated with jobs in the middle and lower levels in the organisation; people in senior positions have a much greater degree of control over their jobs and working lives.

In a University environment, senior people may demonstrate competence in people management and yet a lack of management expertise in this area can cause anything from minor irritations to the complete breakdown of morale.

Staff need to feel secure in the knowledge that their deep concerns are being taken seriously and that appropriate action is being taken to reduce the sources of stress. The promotion of methods on how to tolerate existing and increasing levels of stress is not the answer and can only be beneficial in the short term.

Harry Lewis, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and chair of the stress committee, comments: Mr Scawthorn’s expression of concern about stress in the workplace is timely. A policy statement from the University’s committee on stress at work – developed with the full involvement of our three campus trade unions – is due for formal approval shortly. We hope, through this policy, to promote practices that reduce sources of stress and disseminate best practice on the prevention and management of work-related stress. The University also will also commit itself to ensuring that training courses for staff with management responsibilities continue to promote skills and knowledge in best staff management practices, including recognising symptoms of stress and taking appropriate action. The policy applies to all employees.

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