Nigel Purse: Why workplace stress needs a conversation

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wellbeing-badgeA new study from the British Heart Foundation reveals that one in five people in the UK feels ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed by their work, with 40 percent saying their job has had a negative impact on their health in the last five years.

Research into the stress hormone cortisol and the chemical oxytocin (which is linked to love, trust and attachment) shows that exposure to the voice of a ‘trusted’ person reduces cortisol and increases oxytocin – resulting in less stress. And yet a survey by The Oxford Group has found that only 40 percent of us have a trusting relationship with our manager, with one in four saying we feel ‘despondent’ if there is no trust at work.

Following 30 years of research into engagement and performance at work, we concluded that it is possible to reduce workplace stress through a programme of five simple conversations.

The programme

The 5 Conversations programme examines how the brain responds to difficult situations, and how stress could be exacerbated by an absence of trust and understanding at work. Stress happens when the brain can’t cope with being put under pressure and triggers a physiological response known as ‘fight or flight’, a hard-wired reaction in the brain that perceives a threat to survival. The more frequently we come into contact with these stress triggers, the more overactive our fight or flight response becomes.

Unconsciously we are constantly monitoring how we feel about the people around us – asking ourselves ‘Can I trust this person?’ and looking for changes in language tone or facial expression. If someone demonstrates behaviour that our primitive brains perceive as a threat, we become closed, defensive and suspicious. To get a better response, we need to appeal to people’s responsive, rational brains. This can only happen through a two-way, authentic conversation. We are too good at detecting insincerity. This means having to put our own egos aside and genuinely relate to the other person.

The conversations

We start by establishing a trusting relationship. This could be getting to know a new colleague, or rebuilding and strengthening an existing relationship. The better the conversation, the more trust will develop. We then go on to agree mutual expectations, so that each person knows what part they need to play in the success of the project or task.

Thirdly, we need to demonstrate genuine appreciation. Stress can be exacerbated when we feel that we are working hard and yet no-one values our efforts. Bringing us on to challenging unhelpful behaviour – possibly the hardest conversation of all.

The UK Health and Safety Executive identifies that work relationships can be one of the biggest sources of stress, especially where there are problems like bullying and harassment. Most of us shy away from facing conflict at work, for fear that we could make the situation worse. This conversation is about challenging negative behaviour in the right way, ensuring that the person’s fight or flight response doesn’t kick in and reaching a positive outcome for all concerned.

Finally, building for the future – once you’ve made the effort to build loyalty and trust among staff, it’s essential that they know you are thinking about their career progression within the company. This could identify changes that a person wants to make to their role, for example decreasing their workload to achieve a better work/life balance. It could also help to alleviate any anxiety they may have over job security or salary expectations. Many leaders have told us that this is the least held and yet most needed conversation in their organisation.

Having trusting personal relationships around us is a deep human need. Transforming trust, engagement and performance at work can be the key to enhancing quality of life and a sense of fulfilment, both at work and beyond.

To find out more about 5 Conversations, go to http://www.5conversations.co.uk/

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