Four management competencies for combating stress

New research from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified four key stress management behaviours that can make the difference between line managers bucking up or bringing down the people they supervise.

But, explains AXA ICAS business manager Eugene Farrell, knowing what to do and actually doing it isn’t always easy.

One would have hoped that business would have got to grips with stress by now. But if you read an article or handbook on stress management, it will still typically begin with an explanation under the heading ‘what is stress?’ This is then often followed by ‘what can be done about it?’

Vital statistics

The same key facts are then duly rattled out: one in five workers report feeling extremely stressed at work; work related stress, anxiety and depression account for an estimated 10.5 million reported lost working days per year in Britain. Work-related stress, anxiety and depression are one of the main causes of long-term sickness absence – especially amongst non-manual workers. But, in view of such statistics, it’s amazing that stress management still often fails to be taken seriously enough in the workplace. I once worked with an organisation made up of ex-military personnel where the managing director told me flatly that ‘stress is for the weak’. Such archaic views certainly do persist but, even for the more enlightened, there isn’t much in the way of formal guidelines and procedures to actually help companies deal with stress.

‘It’s amazing that stress management still often fails to be taken seriously enough in the workplace.’

A new report launched by the HSE in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Investors in People should therefore be applauded.

Management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work looks specifically at the role and responsibilities of line managers. It follows on from the competency framework published by the HSE last year in phase one of the research – which identified 19 competencies for managers to acquire.

Now we are four

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the main finding was that trying to apply 19 competencies on top of existing management competency frameworks within organisations was a little too unwieldy. So the number of competencies has now been reduced to four – each with three sub-competencies. The four competencies now are:

  • respectful and responsible – managing emotions and having integrity
  • managing and communicating existing and future work
  • reasoning/managing difficult situations
  • managing the individual within the team

At the report launch, Judith Hackett, chair of the HSE, said the new competencies ‘should appear in any manual for being a good manager’, and report co-author Emma Donaldson-Feilder said that she had found that competencies to battle stress were actually competencies about good management. She was also fairly certain there were no other existing frameworks that cover the same ground so comprehensively.

Practical guidance needed

Concern voiced at the launch conference was more down to tone than anything else. For example, a CIPD adviser commented: ‘Employers that invest in training and developing their managers to ensure they exhibit the behaviours that manage stress at work will also reap benefits in terms of reduced conflict and staff turnover, as well as increased motivation and commitment. Practical guidance is badly needed to help improve the quality of line management across UK plc.’ Motivation and commitment – otherwise known as ‘engagement’ – certainly carry a lot of weight in stress management, and perhaps more work needs doing in that area when phase three of the research gets underway. But, as for managers needing to ‘exhibit’ behaviours, surely it’s more important to actually live them?

‘Work-related stress, anxiety and depression account for an estimated 10.5 million reported lost working days per year in Britain.’

Identifying the line manager and their behaviours as a significant contributor both to the cause and to the solution to workplace stress is one thing, but laying blame at the feet of the line manager is quite another. Why are we constantly trying to tell managers how to manage? And, equally, is it fair to say that a new competency framework is the cure? At the launch Dr Jan Tout-Hill, a wellbeing officer at Gwent NHS Trust, gave an illuminating description of line managers at the NHS. She described them as having the unenviable job of sitting between corporate demands and operational demands, having to deal with pressure coming from above and below – and from side to side as well! She also praised the effectiveness of the research in helping to make a ‘soft’ issue into a tangible and measurable one, and emphasised that the competencies created a springboard for conversations about stress in the organisation that would otherwise not have taken place. But she did warn that, despite all this, with the best will in the world, ‘changing behaviour is very hard’.

Room for improvement

I would like to have seen more links in the research to absence management and to helping managers manage stress from this perspective. In addition, more useful advice and tools are needed to help managers assist their stressed employees more effectively. But the research, competencies and guidance are welcome additions to what is often a much overlooked area of health at work.

Further information

The full research report, as well as a novel competency indicator questionnaire to help organisations to analyse their line management behaviours, is available at

The CIPD has also produced three complementary documents based on the findings and tailored to the needs of line managers and HR professionals:

Key points

  • The HSE/CIPD has identified four management competencies for combating stress
  • These are a welcome addition to an often overlooked aspect of workplace health
  • But actually changing employee behaviour is very hard
  • More useful advice and tools are needed to help line managers in this area

Related Topics

Business management

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