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Solutions for stress

"Work-based stress is estimated to cost the Australian economy billions."

Who hasn't endured workplace stress? It would be rare employee – or employer – who hasn't felt like tossing it all in when workplace demands begin to crush health and happiness.

Work-based stress is an all-too-familiar catchcry that's estimated to cost the Australian economy billions.

But research by Professor Andrew Noblet in the Deakin Business School is set to make an impact on what can sometimes seem like a workplace epidemic.

Funded by VicHealth, Professor Noblet's team is working with two organisations to help identify the processes and methods that can be used to develop workplace stress-prevention programs. The research will then be used to assist other Victorian organisations plan and implement needs-based stress prevention initiatives in their workplaces.

'It's focused on what we call the "organisational and psycho-social conditions" that contribute to job stress. It's looking at the issues that employees are immersed in on an everyday basis – such as communications and workload – and then working with the organisation to come up with strategies to address the conditions that have a negative influence on employees' wellbeing. At the same time, we're also looking at what has a positive influence and leveraging off these to create less stressful and more satisfying working environments,' says Professor Noblet.

Working with two organisations – Victoria Police and EACH (a social and community health organisation) – the study first identified the issues that were impacting on employee wellbeing.

'We went through a lengthy needs-assessment process with interviews, focus groups and employee surveys to identify what the baseline levels of wellbeing within the organisation … and also what factors contribute, either negatively or positively, to workplace wellbeing,' he explains.

The next step was to bring together representatives and specialist departments – such as OHS and HR – from all levels of the organisation and ask them to devise strategies which addressed key concerns.

'These had to be operationally viable when implemented … it's about taking in the needs of the organisation as well as the employees,' he adds.

The study with Victoria Police involves two stations with one as a control group (or comparison station) that doesn't receive intervention. Two primary strategies are being implemented: leadership development and workload management.

'Leadership development is key factor because supervisor support is incredibly important,' says Professor Noblet. 'If it's lacking it can lead to job stress and can have a negative impact on job satisfaction. But if it's positive it can lead to higher levels of engagement and motivation.

The 'supportive leadership training' is targeted to the station's sergeants because they are the direct supervisors of junior officers.

'It's about equipping them with the capacity to implement a supportive leadership style,' says Professor Noblet.

The Deakin researchers are also providing an ongoing coaching program.

'We don't do one training program and leave … we have a coach who works with the sergeants – both individually and in small groups – providing feedback on the barriers they're being confronted with when implementing the new strategies or, if it's going well, providing encouragement for these to become embedded in their everyday management practices.'

So far, he says, the signs are good.

'While we're yet to see what comes from the follow-up data, it seems like there's a genuine attempt to make positive changes.'

The second strategy focuses on a police officer's ability to complete paperwork.

'For every five minutes a police officer spends on catching a crook, they can spend up to five hours doing paper work. If you're a junior officer – and we're focusing on early career members – the paperwork is a major source of stress. So we have a number of strategies in place to help them better manage their workload,' Professor Noblet explains.

An almost identical process has been undertaken with the EACH organisation.

'Coincidentally, the two strategies that we've had in place are quite similar as well. At EACH we're focussing on one group of counsellors who often deal with the most disadvantaged groups within their communities. It's often emotionally draining and difficult work and they rely heavily on peer and professional support to ensure they don't suffer burnout.'

In the "caring profession" burnout is particularly problematic so in addition to supervisor training, the researchers are providing resiliency training.

With the study's implementation phase more than half-way through, Professor Noblet says Victoria Police has welcomed Deakin's research and sees it as an opportunity to address organisational stress and improve provision of services.

'They also see this as a capacity-building learning exercise. EACH has a similar view and are using the project as a pilot program to help develop a more strategic, organisation-wide approach to preventing stress and promoting the health of their employees.'

While workplace stress research has been producing solid information for over 30 years, have the problems changed? Professor Noblet thinks not.

'There's probably not a great deal of change in the factors that contribute to job stress. But because organisations are operating in much more unpredictable environments and are changing rapidly, the impact – in terms of breadth and severity – is increasing. So while the same problems exist, they're now having a much bigger influence.'

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