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Effective Interventions: Organisational and Employee Actions to Combat Workplace Stress

Written by Farhan Shahzad, M.D, and Sarah Davies-Robertson





According to the American Psychological Society, a healthy organisation is one which embodies employee involvement in decision making, autonomy in roles, work-life balance, professional development opportunities, adequate health and safety and employee recognition through financial and non-financial security. A healthy organisation is one that is successful financially and whose employees are psychologically and physically healthy.


Making the necessary changes that contribute to the wellbeing of employees has been linked to increased happiness and productivity, known as the Happy Productive Worker Thesis. In essence, happier employees are more productive, with several studies showing a relationship between wellbeing and performance. Employee wellbeing is also linked to problem solving skills engagement and adaptability, therefore, it makes sense for organisations to develop a culture that embraces employee wellbeing.


In terms of organisational interventions, Cooper and Marshall (1976), posit three changes that can be made: structural changes, work-life balance and skills training interventions. These changes focus on greater autonomy for employees, flexibility in terms of home and work-life and developing an employee’s skill set. The emphasis is on an interdependent approach that focuses both on employee and organisational changes. Similarly, Ilgen (1999) stated three types of interventions to support psychological wellbeing. These include composition, training and situational engineering. Composition focuses on selection of personnel into the right roles; training focuses on interventions that allow employees to have the appropriate skillset aligned to the role and situational engineering focuses on changing the work environment so it is aligned with the needs of the employees. In this sense, the approach both complements the person-environment fit model in the sense that it asserts a complementary relationship between the employee (utilising their skills) and the environment they inhabit. The approaches also emphasise the need to make structural level changes to reduce stressors because these have been linked to greater negative health consequences, acknowledging that if organisational level stressors are not reduced any employee-focused interventions would only be a short-term solution.


Despite the evidence suggesting a need to eradicate organisational level stressors, it is argued that even if organisations do tackle stressors such as decision autonomy, not all employees will respond in the same way. Increasing autonomy may lower the level of anxiety in the majority of the organisation, but there will be some employees who prefer not to have too much autonomy that may experience an increase in anxiety.


Resilience: A Two-Way Approach


Another interdependent intervention is resilience training. Resilience is the ability to overcome adversity and to grow positively from the adverse situation, with state-like resilience something that can be taught utilising training interventions. Resilience training focuses on the employee, the team and the organisation to help build a healthy organisation that can flourish through challenging times.


According to the CIPD (2011), organisational level resilience is important because leaders within an organisation influence resilience through their leadership. They argue that approaches to organisational resilience can be clustered into four categories: job design, organisational structure and culture, leadership and external environment. Interventions that look at the organisational environment are important because building trustworthy relationships and having social support at work means that organisations are more likely to overcome stressful encounters.


Individual training interventions on resilience focuses on, not only teaching resilience itself, but also on stress management approaches such as mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), positive psychological interventions, hardiness and self-efficacy training. Employee focused interventions on their own are likely to have short- term effectiveness, however, fostering resilience on multiple levels (employee, team and organisational levels) mean it is much more likely to be effective (CIPD, 2011). If there are a range of resilience strategies at an organisational level, these will, in effect, increase the ability to respond to challenges. Similarly, fostering team level resilience means increasing social support and collective efficacy, that essentially means employees do not feel alone when going through challenging situations. Despite the interdependent approach to resilience training, and its general effectiveness on multiple levels, it can be argued that organisational level interventions must be prioritised to maintain effectiveness. The focus of employee wellbeing must still be a top-down approach.


Resilience training, although useful in broadening an employee’s coping repertoire, should not be a measure taken only so that organisations can abdicate responsibility for their employees’ wellbeing. As a result, the Human Resources Development (HRD) model has two approaches to developing resilience, which they call reactive and proactive HRD. Reactive HRD focuses on individual level interventions that utilise a broaden-and-build model. This approach emphasises the need to broaden the employee’s coping repertoire of positive emotions that in effect supports the growth of positive psychological capital, in which resilience is a key component. Paradoxically, proactive HRD is an organisational level measure to increase psychological assets and reduce risk.


Although resilience training has shown effective improvements in organisations that implement it, there are a number of limitations to the research studies that have been conducted. There has been a lack of longitudinal research and an over-focus on self-reports that may impact on memory bias and may affect validity due to their subjective nature. There has also been too much focus on the individual rather than situational factors that impact on resilience. However, interventions have been useful in addressing job design, leadership behaviour, processes and culture at an organisational level (CIPD, 2011). On an individual level, positive changes have occurred through addressing personality and external environmental factors, with group level resilience fostering competence and growth.


Stress Management: What Can Organisations Do?


In the US government’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for the prevention of Work Related Psychological Disorders, they propose a number of organisational changes to increase organisational and employee wellbeing. These changes include changing the work load and pace so that it matches the capabilities of employees; developing a work schedule that emphasises a suitable congruence between work and home life; an emphasis on job security and career development, changes to the social environment that focuses on social networks and support and job content, which gives the role meaning. These organisational level interventions focus on structural changes that help make the workplace a happy and healthier place. The emphasis is on organisational changes, rather than being employee focused. However, their proposed changes tackle the known organisational level stressors that contribute to employee stress.


Another approach postulated by Cooper and Cartwright (1997) is a three-tier approach to stress management that focuses on primary, secondary and tertiary level interventions. Primary level interventions focus on the organisational level stressor reduction, while secondary level interventions focus on stress management and prevention of the stress escalating. Tertiary level interventions are employee assistance led such as counselling that addresses existing problems. Many stress management programmes have been employee-focused, which have been criticised for attributing responsibility and ownership of stress management to the employee, and an over emphasis on increasing productivity. However, a broad range of interventions are recommended. Although the emphasis is on tackling organisational stressors through primary interventions first, building employees’ repertoires of positive emotions will complement an organisation through fostering a happy and healthy workforce that can adapt to any changes and development that are a natural part of the modern working life.

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