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Leadership and Organisational Stress

It is often a bold and courageous person that takes on the role of a leader. Whilst leadership can be demonstrated by anyone who inspires others to act, here, we are specifically focusing on those with a formal leadership role. There are clear organisational and leadership responsibilities with regard supporting employees.

It is often a bold and courageous person that takes on the role of a leader. Whilst leadership can be demonstrated by anyone who inspires others to act, here, we are specifically focusing on those with a formal leadership role. There are clear organisational and leadership responsibilities with regard supporting employees.

From an organisational perspective, research suggests that stressors are more likely to emanate from the organisation than the intrinsic features of the job itself. Furthermore, a lack of organisational/leadership support is a key predictor of stress and burnout. Therefore, responsibility for reorganising and ameliorating the causes of stress lies with the organisation.

Stress as an Occupational Hazzard

Although there is no specific legislation that covers stress at work, your employer should deal with stress as an occupational health and safety hazard, and take action to control factors in the workplace that contribute to stress. The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) places a duty on employers to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practicable, workplaces are safe and healthy environments.

It can be argued that work-related stress is a health and safety issue if stress is caused, or made worse, through work. Under the Management of Health and Safety Regulations (1999), employers must consider hazards in the workplace and assess the level of risk that the hazard poses for employees. Once the degree of risk has been assessed, action must be taken to control the risk and eliminate the likelihood of employees being harmed.

Work-related stress can impact on your organisation in a number of ways. These include staff attitude and behaviour, sickness absence, presenteeism, relationships at work and work performance.

Leadership to Improve Working Environment

As a leader, addressing these areas can be good for your organisation resulting in increased performance at work, a decrease in sickness absence, improved retention and recruitment of staff, reducing litigation costs and an improvement in staff morale and relationships at work. Most leadership training starts with strategic and financial aspects, however, good leadership starts by understanding your people. The ability of a leader to be compassionate to staff has a significant correlation with profitability and productivity. In challenging, frightening and unprecedented times, as the COVID-19 pandemic has created the need for leaders and managers to connect with their staff and create a sense of cohesion is especially important.

Leadership – Start with yourself

It may be helpful to consider how you attend to yourself in order to better attend to others. The following self-reflection questions are recommended.

• Body – How is your body posture and tone of voice when relaxed? And when under pressure? What would help you notice, in times of stress, to choose to act differently?

• Mind – When does your ‘inner critic’ surface? Where do those judgements come from? With any specific recent difficult work experiences, what was it about the situation you found to be personal stressors and what were the triggers? When you have felt at your best at work, what made it so positive?

• Attitude – When does your work feel most meaningful? When does it feel most futile? How do you stay connected with your core purpose?

• Behaviour – How can you build on existing ways, or build new practices to process your emotions and sustainability as a leader? In what ways are you able to role model the behaviours you wish to see demonstrated by others?

• Do you have or could you start to work with an accountability associate to help make changes that could be beneficial?

Two clear goals for you as a leader should be to manage your own internal capacity to manage stress and cope with pressure and also demonstrate the behaviours you know will be helpful to others.

Leadership – Decision Making

Decision making is a crucial component of effective leadership and perhaps this is even more obvious in high stakes, uncertain and low resource situations. A study of 17,000 executives suggests that decisiveness – making decisions quickly, mattered significantly more than the quality of those decisions. Too often, leaders delay decisions or, worse, make none at all. In the research, those who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs. Only 6% received low marks because they made decisions too quickly, the vast majority (94%) scored low because they decided too little, too late.

Leadership – Supporting Your Workforce

Research suggests that leaders can, albeit unintentionally, drain work of its meaning for their workforce. The research is clear, having a sense of purpose is a key factor in creating a buffer against the ongoing negative effects of stress and to maintaining productivity and resilience. Furthermore, good leadership to help others process shared experiences can create a sense of camaraderie and of being ‘in it together. Leaders who embody a group’s identity are more likely to be supported; trusted and perceived as effective.

It is novelty, uncertainty and uncontrollability that create worry in employees. There are several, mutually enhancing, recommended actions that as a leader, you can do to address workplace stress:

• accept the responsibility that it’s your job as a leader to remove as much uncertainty as possible

• be consistently clear and transparent with your staff and deal with ambiguity

• implement a stress policy which includes guidance on how to manage stress in the workplace and the process for assessing the causes of workplace stress

• have wellbeing as a consistent agenda item at your staff meetings

• provide staff support such as counselling, mentoring, coaching, training or supervision

• make staff strategy and targets meaningful and create a longer term perspective

• stay attuned to shifts in maladaptive habits or behaviours in others

• offer staff opportunities to improve their own health such as healthy eating options in canteens and at-work exercise initiatives

• ensure staff are able to take at work breaks and are not regularly working beyond their scheduled hours

• offer specific stress management or resilience training

• ask more questions of your staff to better understand their perspectives


Leadership is about relationships. Leadership is the unique combination of who you are, how you think, what you do and how you relate to other people

Having explored leadership briefly we encourage you to reflect on the strategies discussed and the link to stress and productivity in a work setting that you are familiar with.

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Workplace Wellbeing: Stress and Productivity at Work

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