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Easy does it: How a trend to slow down could reduce work-related stress

Mindful Manager

Posted by: sabine-robinson

Employee Wellbeing

Good mental health helps us to think, feel and act in a way that enables us to successfully overcome challenges, enjoy life and ultimately be happier – both at home and at work.

Yet, in our current high-tech performance-driven world, we often feel that ongoing stress is the price that we have to pay to keep our professional and private lives on track.

Technological advances create the assumption that people are – and should be – reachable 24/7, and this can lead to unrealistically tight deadlines. The cultural make-up of some organisations also, and often unwittingly, creates the expectation that their workforce needs to be totally dedicated to their jobs.

The result can be a pressurised and stressful work environment.

Stress is the main reason for absence

The CIPD’s Absence Management Survey cites stress as the main reason for long-term absence (53 per cent) and the second highest reason for short-term absence (47 per cent). The impact of stress on employees’ mental wellbeing is now at an all-time high.

NatCen, Britain’s leading independent social research institute, conducted a survey amongst its panel members in England, Scotland, and Wales which was commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation.

The results showed that a worrying one in four people expect to experience a mental health issue at least once a year, and that work-related stress may cost British businesses more than three billion pounds per year.

With these statistics in mind, an article by the German futurologist and sociologist Matthias Horx caught my eye. The first line roughly translates as ‘Stress and a hectic life style? No thank you’. The article claims that more and more people crave a slowdown in their lives in favour of a better quality of life, and that this could ultimately work to the advantage of employers.

But how can we slow down and still be productive?

2015 brought us a focus on the mindfulness practice. This meditative practice rooted in Buddhism encourages a focus on the present moment, rather than on the worries of the past or the future. Its popularity continues to spread.

Horx suggests that people increasingly feel that they have been a victim of change – partially influenced by the rapid development of technology – which they are unable to control. Management styles influenced by mindfulness address exactly this problem.

The article advocates that the trend for rationalisation and efficiency, i.e. striving for the highest output and profit, paired with the minimum amount of resources, has run its course. In contrast, mindful management focuses on effectiveness fuelled by improving the level of motivation and cooperation amongst staff.

For this approach to really work, managers have to delve deeply into their employees’ behavioural traits. You have to understand exactly what motivates your people, and how they are likely to respond to pressure. Whilst financial rewards are a huge incentive, providing the appropriate level of praise and appreciation, and enabling creativity and downtime can also make for a happier workforce.

Horx takes this one step further and advocates that the solution to stress-related problems in the workplace is a shorter working week. Studies in Scandinavian countries, for instance, have shown that a 30-40 hour week for both men and women has almost no effect on productivity but a huge impact on employee welfare. More time to relax, spending meaningful leisure time with the family or pursuing a hobby has a positive repercussions on employees’ mental health, and consequently the morale in the workplace.

There is less likelihood of early burnout, stress-related accidents and absences, and mistakes being made due to tiredness in the workplace. At the same time, an employee’s quality of life improves which reduces overall stress levels. It seems obvious that people are likely to be more refreshed and therefore motivated to work harder when their work-life balance has been restored, and, of course, if they feel appreciated.

Is this just wishful utopian thinking?

If the solution of a shorter working week is to be successful, the amount of pay needs to remain the same as before. Otherwise, financial worries are likely to counteract any of the potential benefits. In spite of the strong evidence of some of the positive effects of this practice on businesses, a four-day week might not sound like an economically valid solution for your business.

You may also not wish to whole-heartedly embrace all aspects of mindful management, or you may indeed already encourage a good work-life balance amongst your employees.

Combined with the statistics on employee’s mental health, at the very least Horx’s article provides some food for thought and encourages reflection.

The figures and findings might compel you to step back and take stock of the managerial and cultural status quo of your organisation. If you know your staff well, it is easier to make small adjustments that could make a huge difference, such as the way that you feed back to them, develop them, set targets and align the company goals. This could help to create a less stressful and happier work environment for your people and have a positive impact on the overall productivity of your organisation.

Being mindful of the needs, health and welfare of your employees in this way can only be a good thing for your people, you as a manager, and the company as a whole.