Kevin Young, general manager EMEA, SkillSoft

In the build up to September’s Stress Prevention and Mental Wellbeing Forum, Kevin Young, general manager EMEA, SkillSoft explains how stressed staff can be supported in a way that benefits the entire organisation.

It had to happen sometime; suddenly positive thinking is getting a negative press. Since the publication of the book Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich, which attacks the self-help industry and demolishes the belief that optimism can conquer everything, many more have allowed themselves a gloomy thought. For example, a recent long article in The Independent, asked: “Does the happiness formula really add up?”

Perhaps this mood just chimes with our age of austerity and cutbacks. But this backlash may result in us becoming less, rather than more, sympathetic towards those who are truly unhappy or stressed. After all, if sadness and hardship are inevitable parts of life, perhaps we need to “pull ourselves together” and “put up with it”.

And as news of further cuts in public spending and job losses filters through over the next few months, some less-than-professional HR departments may be tempted to think their staff are “lucky to have a job” when they complain of overwork and being under pressure.

However, although in truth they may be one of the fortunate ones, look no further than a recent report by the charity, MIND, to see where stress can lead. MIND estimated that UK businesses lose £26 billion and 70 million working days each year due to stress. With companies and other organisations desperate to minimise operating costs – an insensitive approach to their problems could backfire.

But how can you deal with stressed out employees in a way that reflects the new zeitgeist? Of course there will always be cases that need professional medical help and obviously these need careful handling. But whether your organisation is just bracing itself for cuts or just recovering from recession, relatively low to medium levels of stress coupled with de-motivation can seriously affect a business’s overall performance. After all, high levels of sickness and absenteeism will only compound the problem, giving remaining staff more work and worry.

A look at the real reasons behind the tension may reveal the answer. A recent independent survey commissioned by SkillSoft showed that one third of workers were trying to do jobs they are not properly trained to do. The three main issues that set the stress alarms ringing were company changes, fear of redundancy and increased workload through having to take on others’ work.

In fact, in Essential Learning another report compiled on behalf of SkillSoft 18 months ago – just as the recession was creeping up on us – 80% of UK managers said they were being asked to undertake tasks without receiving appropriate training beforehand. Also, when asked to identify who in their organisation was in most need of ongoing training and development, 76% of UK employees named their line managers.

It was noticeable that this figure was far higher in the UK than in the US or the rest of Europe where respondents appeared, in general, to have more faith in their management teams. It’s no wonder that, when asked to rank ten tasks in order of concern, ‘managing people’ was way ahead, with ‘leadership’ close behind.

Behind these statistics is a story of managers doubling up on jobs, perhaps promoted too quickly because of a freeze on recruitment and feeling ill-equipped to cope with demands from all sides and levels. In the UK it’s often a case of lack of confidence rather than competence – and when it is the latter, even the softer “people” skills can be taught. But with training budgets under threat, these are often the very courses that are seen as superfluous.

The idea of e-learning sometimes elicits a negative response from those who have never tried it but almost always enthusiasm from those who have. In fact, it is ideal for teaching busy managers – especially in sensitive situations where taking a full day out to do a training course on “people skills” may be a) more time out of the office than they can afford and b) a rather too public admission of their shortcomings.

Online courses can be completed in relative privacy, whenever and wherever is convenient and in bite-sized chunks when time is short. These can be complemented by online talks and tips by well-known business leaders to further help boost confidence plus access to 24×7 online libraries of relevant books for “just-in-time” learning when circumstances demand. All offer extensive knowledge and support to managers who have the comfort of knowing they are helping both their own careers plus the future of their organisation.

We’ve found that often managers discover e-learning through their staff. One of our customers, a well-known and well-established publishing firm, recently told us that its e-learning programme had really taken off because of the buy-in by its managers. Senior staff have really embraced the idea and then seeing the benefits to their employees, begun to do courses on topics such as “assertiveness”, “delegating successfully”, “how to give constructive criticism” and “problem solving” for themselves.

This company has chosen to blend e-learning with traditional classroom training so reducing overall training budgets. Its learning and development consultant told us she had received much positive feedback from managers who say that e-learning consolidates what they have learnt in the classroom and helps them put lessons into practice. She says that e-learning has had a definite impact on the company as staff see that by broadening their skills they are doing something to help themselves, as well as the organisation.

The more employees that take the courses, the more cost-effective the programme becomes. Currently this customer has estimated that each course taken is costing them less than a round of drinks.

Of course there is always the worry that offering such courses is adding to an already burdensome workload and over-stretched managers and staff simply won’t have the time to do them. Often giving potential learners personal choice and control over their own development is the key here, eliminating some of the pressure.
For example, the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) began a major programme of blended learning with a large e-learning component a few years ago and the scheme is now well embedded in its culture. The need for personal choice ran right through the entire project and employees were given the option to learn at their desks, in one of the numerous NHS learning centres and even in their own homes. This flexibility really appealed to staff and was partly responsible for the shift in culture which moved e-learning into the mainstream.

“People will come in early in the morning to do their training or stay an hour later in the evening. It’s completely their choice, but their conscientiousness and willingness is certainly minimising disruption during normal working hours,” says Alex Moat, e-learning manager.

Of course, wherever there is a group of intelligent but different individuals who need to get something done, there are always going to be stresses and strains. But being supportive doesn’t necessarily mean a choice between saddling the company with excessive overheads or making talented staff run before they can walk and then watching them leave in a dispirited state at the first opportunity.

We may be entering a new age of rigorous thinking – but I am still optimistic enough to see e-learning as a positive solution where both the organisation and the individual can aim for the same goal – and win.