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Line management competence: the key to

preventing and reducing stress at work


Emma Donaldson-Feilder, Jo Yarker and Rachel Lewis

Abstract
Purpose Work-related stress is a major concern for employers, and the UK Health and Safety
Executive has introduced Management Standards for employers to support them in managing stress in
the workplace. Managers have a key role to play in minimizing stress-related risks for their staff.
Management behavior has a direct impact on staff well-being managers can prevent or cause stress
in those they manage. Managers also act as gatekeepers to their employees exposure to stressful
working conditions and are vital to the identification and tackling of stress in the workplace. This means
that managers need to understand what behaviors they should show in order to manage their employees
in a way that minimizes work-related stress. New research has identified management
behavior/competencies that prevent and reduce stress at work and this paper aims to present this.

Emma Donaldson-Feilder is
Chartered Occupational
Psychologist, Affinity Health
at Work, New Barnet, UK.
Jo Yarker is Lecturer in
Occupational Psychology
and Rachel Lewis is
Research Associate, both
at the University of London,
London, UK.
The authors have recently been
awarded Practitioner of the Year
by the British Psychological
Society Division of Occupational
Psychology for their work on this
project.
The research findings so far are
the outcome of the first phase of a
continuing research program.
Further research is under way to
refine and validate the
competency framework and to
explore how it can best be used in
practice. For those interested in
learning more about the findings
of this research, the HSE and
CIPD are providing free
downloads as follows: short
guidance leaflets providing the
findings of the research can be
downloaded from the CIPD web
site: www.cipd.co.uk:80/
subjects/health/stress/
_lnmngtstrs.htm; and the full
research report can be
downloaded from the HSE web
site: www.hse.gov.uk/research/
rrhtm/rr553.htm

DOI 10.1108/14754390810853110

Design/methodology/approach The first phase of this research involved interviews with nearly 400
employees and managers, and focus groups with over 50 human resources (HR) professionals. They
were asked for their views on what manager behaviors are important, in terms of behaviors that are
effective and behaviors that are ineffective for managing stress in staff.
Findings The behaviors identified were grouped into themes to create a framework of 19
management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work.
Originality/value The resulting competency framework can be incorporated into managers
management approach, into HR practices such as training, selection and appraisal of managers and
into other stress management activities in order to manage stress at work more effectively.
Keywords Stress, Employees, Health and safety, Human resource management, Competences
Paper type Research paper

ork-related stress is now a major concern for employers. In the UK, Health and
Safety Executive (HSE) figures show that work-related stress, depression or
anxiety account for an estimated 12.8 million lost working days per year. Around
one in seven working individuals think their job is very or extremely stressful and 420,000
individuals in Britain believe that they are experiencing work-related stress at a level that is
making them ill[1]. This means that very few organizations are likely to escape the impact of
stress-related absence and employee stress. Where stress-related problems lead to an
employee being absent from work, an average of 29 working days are lost. In a recent
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) survey, 40 percent of the
responding organizations reported an increase in stress-related absence (CIPD, 2007).

In response to the problem presented by work-related stress, the HSE has established
Management Standards for stress at work that are designed to help employers tackle the
major sources of work-related stress risk. Published in 2004, these represent a set of
conditions that reflect high levels of health, well-being and organizational performance.
They cover six key areas, which, if not managed well, put employees at risk of stress-related
ill-health. They are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change[1].

VOL. 7 NO. 2 2008, pp. 11-16, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1475-4398

STRATEGIC HR REVIEW

PAGE 11

The vital role of line managers


The HSEs Management Standards initiative is driven from health and safety. However, much
of the responsibility for its implementation will fall on HR professionals and line managers.
This means that HR professionals and line managers need to understand: what stress is and
what constitutes a healthy workplace; and what skills, abilities and behaviors managers
need to manage their employees in a way that minimizes work-related stress.
While HR professionals will be responsible for ensuring that an organization has in place the
requisite policies, procedures and systems, line managers are generally responsible for
implementing people management practices on a day-to-day basis. Line managers are also
the main intermediaries between individual staff members and the organization. As a result,
managers can be a significant determinant of how well an organization manages employee
stress. Managers can impact on workplace stress of employees in a number of ways:
B

Managers can cause (or prevent) stress by the way they behave towards their
employees.

Managers can act as the gatekeepers to the presence or absence of hazardous


working conditions for employees, for instance, preventing an unfair workload being
placed on an individual or ensuring that organizational change is well communicated.

Managers can help ensure that stress is identified early if it occurs in their team.

If an individual suffers from stress, the manager needs to be involved in the solution.

Managers hold the key to the success of work development or change initiatives.

Managers are responsible for the uptake and rollout of risk assessments for work stress
within their team/department.

On the basis that managers are vital to managing stress in the workplace, it is important that
we understand exactly what a manager should (and should not) be doing to prevent and
reduce workplace stress. The research evidence to support managers in this area has, until
recently, been sparse. However, new research by psychologists from Goldsmiths, University
of London and Affinity Health at Work has started to clarify the key behaviors.

Research findings
Funded by the HSE and supported by the CIPD, the first phase of this research involved
interviews with nearly 400 employees and managers, and focus groups with over 50 HR
professionals. Participants were drawn from 30 organizations across five sectors
healthcare, finance, education, local government and central government. They were asked
for their views on what manager behaviors are important, both in terms of behaviors that are
effective and of behaviors that are ineffective for managing stress in staff. The behaviors
identified were grouped into themes to create a framework of 19 management
competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work. The competency framework,
with examples of positive and negative behavior relating to each competency, is shown in
Table I.
The data from the participants in different sectors were compared to see if the manager
behaviors required to prevent and reduce stress are different depending on the work setting.
Perhaps surprisingly, the findings showed no significant differences between the behaviors
identified by participants from different sectors. This suggests that the manager behaviors
that prevent and reduce stress at work are pretty much the same in all the sectors. There is,
perhaps, a set of management competencies that are universally applicable for preventing
and reducing stress at work.
Given that many organizations already have competency frameworks in place, the
researchers also explored whether the management competencies for preventing and
reducing stress at work were distinct from more general management
behaviors/competencies. They compared the framework that emerged from the research
to a selection of the most widely used people management and leadership frameworks.
They found that each of the competencies appeared in at least one of the comparison

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Table I Management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work


Competency

Positive examples of manager behavior

Negative examples of manager behavior

Managing workload and


resources

Bringing in additional resource to handle workload


Aware of team members ability when allocating
tasks
Monitoring team workload
Refusing to take on additional work when team is
under pressure
Following through problems on behalf of
employees
Developing action plans
Breaking problems down into manageable parts
Dealing rationally with problems
Reviewing processes to see if work can be
improved
Asking themselves could this be done better?
Prioritizing future workloads
Working proactively rather than reactively
Trusting employees to do their work
Giving employees responsibility
Steering employees in a direction rather than
imposing direction
Provides opportunity to air views
Provides regular team meetings
Prepared to listen to what employees have to say
Knows when to consult employees and when to
make a decision
Encourages staff to go on training courses
Provides mentoring and coaching
Regularly reviews development
Helps employees to develop within the role
Communicating that employees can talk to them at
any time
Having an open door policy
Making time to talk to employees at their desks
Making sure everyone is safe
Structuring risk assessments
Ensuring all health and safety requirements are
met
Praising good work
Acknowledging employees efforts
Operating a no blame culture
Passing positive feedback about the team to senior
management
Listening objectively to both sides of the conflict
Supporting and investigating incidents of abuse
Dealing with conflict head on
Following up on conflicts after resolution

Delegating work unequally across the team


Creating unrealistic deadlines
Showing lack of awareness of how much
pressure team is under
Asking for tasks without checking workload first

Dealing with work problems

Process planning and


organization

Empowerment

Participative approach

Development

Accessible/visible

Health and safety

Feedback

Managing conflict

Expressing and managing own


emotions

Acting with integrity

Having a positive approach


Acting calmly when under pressure
Walking away when feeling unable to control
emotion
Apologizing for poor behavior
Keeps employee issues private and confidential
Admits mistakes
Treats all employees with same importance

Listening but not resolving problems


Being indecisive about decisions
Not taking issues and problems seriously
Assuming problems will sort themselves out
Not using consistent processes
Sticking too rigidly to rules and procedures
Panicking about deadlines rather than planning

Managing under a microscope


Extending so much authority employees feel a
lack of direction
Imposing a culture of my way is the only way
Not listening when employee asks for help
Presenting a final solution rather than options
Making decisions without consultation

Refuses requests for training


Not providing upward mobility in the job
Not allowing employees to use their new training
Being constantly at meetings/away from desk
Saying dont bother me now
Not attending lunches or social events with
employees
Not taking health and safety seriously
Questioning the capability of an employee who
has raised a safety issue
Not giving credit for hitting deadlines
Seeing feedback as only one way
Giving feedback that employees are wrong just
because their way of working is different
Not addressing bullying
Trying to keep the peace rather than sort out
problems
Taking sides
Not taking employee complaints seriously
Passing on stress to employees
Acting aggressively
Loosing temper with employees
Being unpredictable in mood
Speaks about employees behind their backs
Makes promises, then doesnt deliver
Makes personal issues public
(Continued)

VOL. 7 NO. 2 2008 STRATEGIC HR REVIEW PAGE 13

Table I
Competency

Positive examples of manager behavior

Negative examples of manager behavior

Friendly style

Willing to have a laugh and a joke


Socializes with team
Brings in food and drinks for team
Regularly has informal chats with employees
Keeps team informed of what is happening in the
organization
Communicates clear goals and objectives
Explains exactly what is required
Leading from the front
Steps in to help out when needed
Communicating the buck stops with me
Deals with difficult customers on behalf of
employees
Able to put themselves in employees shoes
Has enough expertise to give good advice
Knows what employees are doing

Criticizes people in front of colleagues


Pulls team up for talking/laughing during working
hours
Uses harsh tone of voice when asking for things
Keeps people in the dark
Holds meetings behind closed doors
Does not provide timely communication on
organizational change
Saying its not my problem
Blaming the team if things go wrong
Walking away from problems

Communication

Taking responsibility

Knowledge of job

Empathy

Takes an interest in employees personal lives


Aware of different personalities and styles of
working within the team
Notices when a team member is behaving out of
character
Seeks help from occupational health when
necessary
Seeks advice from other managers with more
experience
Uses HR when dealing with a problem

Seeking advice

Does not have the necessary knowledge to do


the job
Does not take time to learn about the employees
job
Insensitive to peoples personal issues
Refuses to believe someone is becoming
stressed
Maintains a distance from employees us and
them
N/a

Note: q Crown Copyright

frameworks, suggesting that the framework can be integrated with existing management
responsibilities. However, no one framework included all 19 competencies. This means that
some behaviors relevant to managing the stress of others are not included in current
management competency frameworks, and are therefore not being assessed, trained or
developed at line manager level.

Applying the research in practice


The identification of the competencies relevant for preventing and reducing stress at work
provides opportunities for HR professionals and line managers to integrate stress
management into existing activities.
1) Supporting managers in preventing and reducing stress at work
The framework allows HR professionals to provide managers with a clear understanding of
the behaviors that they should show, and those that they should avoid, when managing
others. By giving line managers a copy of the framework and guidance on how to use it, HR
professionals can support managers to be effective stress managers. Helping managers
adopt the behaviors in the framework will enable them to prevent, identify and tackle stress in
their teams without actually increasing the workload for the line manager.
2) Integrating stress management behaviors into existing people management processes
Whether or not an organization explicitly uses a management competency approach, the
management competencies for preventing and reducing stress can be integrated into HR
activities, such as:

PAGE 14 STRATEGIC HR REVIEW VOL. 7 NO. 2 2008

[. . .] line managers are generally responsible for


implementing people management practices on a day-to-day
basis.

Training and development. Using the framework to guide training for managers and
ensure that they develop the skills, abilities and behaviors necessary to manage stress
effectively.

Selection and assessment. Using the framework to inform selection processes and
ensure that those who are recruited into the organization are good at managing stress, as
well as performance, in their employees.

Performance management and appraisal systems. Including the framework in


performance management and ensuring managers are rewarded and held
accountable for showing the relevant behaviors.

3) Complementing other stress management activities


A competency approach can be used alongside other stress management activities such as
stress management training, stress risk assessment and stress auditing. For example:
B

As a mechanism for tackling specific hotspots such as departments, units and teams:
managers in the hotspot areas can be supported to develop behaviors/competencies
relevant for preventing and reducing work stress.

To tackle issues relating to specific working conditions (such as work demands or job
control): managers can be supported to develop the relevant behaviors/competencies
(e.g. for managing demands or increasing job control).

To help ensure, as highlighted in the HSEs Management Standards, that systems are in
place locally to respond to individual concerns: managers can be equipped with the
skills to be the local system and respond effectively to their employees individual
concerns.

Using the competency framework in these ways should result in healthier organizations and
help to reduce sickness absence. It should also enable employer organizations to meet their
duties to protect staff from suffering work-related stress.

Note
1. Available at: www.hse.gov.uk/stress

Reference
CIPD (2007), Annual survey report 2007. Absence management, CIPD, London, available at www.
cipd.co.uk/subjects/hrpract/absence/absmagmt.htm

About the authors


Emma Donaldson-Feilder is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist who specializes in
helping organizations achieve sustainable business performance through improvements in
the well-being, morale, productivity and engagement of staff. She combines research and
practitioner roles with writing, presenting and lecturing on workplace well-being. With
particular expertise in assessing and managing work-related stress, Donaldson-Feilder has
worked with a wide range of clients in the public and private sectors, providing training and
consultancy to help employers, managers and individuals minimize stress risks. She is a
regular presenter at professional and academic conferences and contributes lectures to the
MSc in Occupational/Organizational Psychology for a number of universities. She has
appeared on radio and TV providing expert comment on issues relating to health at work and
is also consultant editor for a forthcoming CIPD subscription publication on performance

VOL. 7 NO. 2 2008 STRATEGIC HR REVIEW PAGE 15

and well-being. Emma Donaldson-Feilder is the corresponding author and can be contacted
at: emma@affinityhealthatwork.com
Joanna Yarker (nee Pryce) is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist specializing in health
at work. She has worked with a range of public and private sector organizations, including
PricewaterhouseCoopers, Redbridge County Council, CancerBACUP, AstraZeneca, RCN,
Shell, Corrs Brewers, Ford, Royal Bank of Scotland and Royal Scottish Assurance. She holds
a PhD in Applied Psychology and lectures at the University of London in the areas of
selection, occupational health psychology and work design. Working within both the
academic and practitioner fields enables her to apply current research and innovative
approaches to her work, while maintaining awareness of the rapidly changing needs of
business. She also takes a keen interest in professional activities she is chair of the British
Psychological Societys Occupational Psychology Annual Conference and publishes her
work in practitioner and academic journals.
Rachel Lewis is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist who specializes in organisational
research and consultancy. Through her work in this field, she has been responsible for the
design, implementation and interpretation of many employee and customer research and
3608 feedback programs. She has worked in a wide range of public and private sector
organizations. She also has a keen interest in occupational well-being and is currently
working on a doctorate at Goldsmiths, University of London in the area of leadership and
well-being. She is a visiting lecturer at the University of London in the areas of selection,
training and development. She is a practitioner member of the Division of Occupational
Psychology and The Association of Business Psychologists.

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