Friday, August 14, 2009

Hospital workplace stress

The health sector is by its design a high-stress environment. The sector, even in private health, is formed and driven by political policy and considerations, funding, whether from Government or fee-paying patients, will always struggle to maintain pace with the increasing cost of providing health care, staff deal daily with stressful patient-related incidents that impact upon staff emotionally and hospitals are system and process driven; often they struggle to create an environment that is conducive to high standards of staff support.

None of this is an excuse for mistreating employees or maintaining stressful environments. Managers in the health sector have an obligation, which they accept when they take on the role, to look our for the wellbeing of those staff working with them.

Workplace stress, created by a less-than-friendly workplace environment leads to increased levels of absenteeism, stress-related workplace insurance claims and staff turnover. Add to this mix those employees that experience high levels of stress yet continue to work, do so at minimal levels of effectiveness. It becomes clear the costs associated with workplace stress are high indeed.

As a manager in a hospital, an aged care facility or a medical centre, what can you do to minimise the impact of the workplace upon employees?

Firstly look to help yourself. You cannot help others if you are stressed, unwell or unable to cope. I was working with a manager recently and while we were talking she opened her Outlook task list and pointed out two things. The first was the number of overdue tasks. The second was the number of tasks that she continued to reschedule. These are tasks the manager would like to do, but it was obviously not critical she do them, and one day, if she had time she might get to do them. We talked about those constantly rescheduled tasks and pondered on how many of them were important and if so could they be delegated to others on her work group? A key reason for workplace stress amongst managers is our inability to manage the tasks in our workload. We procrastinate. We leave the unpleasant jobs till they become critical - then we impose stress upon ourselves - and others. We neglect to break large tasks down into a series of small, easily achieved chunks done over a longer period. We fail to plan our work effectively, leading to us taking work home or trying to sleep when we are worried about looming deadlines. That is just what we do to ourselves!

What we do to others on our work group can be much, much worse. When you, as a manager, are stressed and under the pump your capacity to engage in effective decision making is reduced. Your tolerance for working through workplace issues is reduced. Your ability to ask questions and identify the root cause of an issue is reduced. You are always rushing from place to place; unable to spend time facilitating and fostering conversations or listening to what is being said, or even observing what is taking place around you. When you are stressed as a manager you might as well go home because you will be totally ineffective. Your employer is wasting money on you when you continue to operate in a high stress mode.

As a manager you are a role model. Those in your work group will follow you lead. What do you think they see when you appear out of control of your own workload? Are you one of those managers who say do as I say not as I do?

Take some time during staff appraisals to discuss an employees workload, at least. Preferably have an ongoing discussion on this topic rather than once a year! Break down the work and tasks. Work together to identify the bottlenecks. Ask who is the best, most effective, well qualified, most experienced, person to be doing this task? Also ask what is the impact of having this person do this task? Seek out opportunities for sharing roles. Look for the dull, the mundane, the boring and do whatever is in your power to get rid of such tasks. Look for more efficient means of processing the mountain of paperwork demanded by Canberra and Wellington with little or no thought given to either purpose or impact. There are many, many things you can do, as a manager, to help reduce the level of workplace stress amongst employees and staff.

One of the most important management behaviors is to spend time walking around the workplace. I work with the CEO of a Lifeline organisation in Australia. This CEO has spent time in every part of the organisation. She regularly visits the Lifeline stores, wanders round the warehouse and eats lunch with her staff. This is not micro management, this is good management. This CEO has line managers and she leaves them to get on with the job they are entrusted with. When the CEO is walking around she is listening to the stories her staff tell her, she is observing the workplace conditions imposed upon them and her staff can see that she is making an effort to understand how their work impacts upon them. This is not a little thing, this is huge.

Keep your eyes and ears open. Look and listen for signs of distress amongst your staff. Move quickly to provide guidance and support. Whatever you do, do not ignore the signs. The longer you take to act the more it costs your organisation. The sooner you act the less it costs to intervene. When an issue is small and at an embryonic stage it takes much less time and resources to resolve. The more time and resources you devote to resolving an issue the greater the potential for causing distress elsewhere in the organisation.

Failure to observe and failure to act upon workplace stress is very poor management. As a manager you have a duty of care towards those in your work group.

Let The Journey Continue
John Coxon

John Coxon & Associates
Taking You from Frontline Manager to CEO
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