I See No Stress

ostrich-clip-artIn this modern age we are all faced with constant challenges which can build up to make us stressed. We have all experienced days that seem relentless with childcare, traffic, school runs, after school activities for children, problems with neighbours, partners, pets. It is often difficult to get through each day and even though we may work in a good environment, it doesn’t take much to push us over the edge into stress and anxiety. As leaders it is important that we recognise that much of our colleagues’ stress is not necessarily caused by work, but it is stress nonetheless.   

If we want to get the best out of our people, leaders need to know their teams and to look out for signs of stress. Even the best of employers have staff who are suffering from stress, anxiety and depression and you have a duty of care to help those individuals to cope with the difficult balancing act modern life forces on to them. 

It is estimated that mental ill-health is costing the UK approximately £70 billion per year (OECD). With the average absence for mental breakdown being 3 months followed by phased returns and “light duties” this is a massive drain on resources. If you take a senior colleague on £40,000 pa you can expect it to cost up to £20,000 for a serious mental health episode. In large businesses, there can be a number of individuals in this position and so the costs mount up. Long before a colleague goes off sick, their performance will degrade and they can pull the whole team down. 

Most businesses have well defined procedures for helping employees back into work after a mental illness. They are very good at it and many are very supportive. Unfortunately, very few businesses have mechanisms and programmes in place to help staff avoid breakdowns. Many mental issues can be managed with support and resilience training. Colleagues should be given the opportunity to learn how to manage their mental health and leaders should be taught how to communicate to colleagues in ways which reduce stress. 

It is interesting that when asking the staff in businesses about stress management services you get a resounding positive response; your staff are crying out for support. But when asking the leaders of the same organisations you get “everything is fine here, we see no stress”. Does your organisation have its head in the sand when it comes to mental health? 

Nooksrest Wellbeing (www.nooksrest.co.uk) was established to offer wellbeing support to the staff and leadership of businesses. Currently working in central Leeds, we are offering free stress management taster sessions. Contact Kevin Whittington (wellbeing@nooksrest.co.uk) to give it a try.



Who is Top Dog

topdogThis is the latest post in the current series of my musings on leadership. I’m sorry it isn’t connected to my farm, but it is important nonetheless.
When we consider an organisation we think of it in hierarchical terms: Director -> Head of Function (HOF) -> Senior Management -> Line Manager -> Team; the “bosses” read left to right. But let us consider the importance of the levels of the hierarchy in day to day business.
The Directors see to the long term direction of the company. They make sure that the business meets the future expectations of the investors and come up with a 3-5 (or beyond) year plan. This generally means that if a director went AWOL for six months or so, they wouldn’t really be noticed (sorry folks!). After that the company would drift away from the long term aims and it would take radical measures to bring it back on course.
The HOFs work on a medium term plan to implement measures which guide the company along the long term plan of the directors. This means that a HOF could be AWOL for three months and not be missed too much. After that, the long term plan could be put in jeopardy.
Senior management are closer to the day to day, but could get away with a month’s sabbatical before the function feels the impact.
Line managers tend to plan work a few weeks ahead so they could get a couple of weeks of well-earned rest.
The discourse above does not concern itself with some of the day to day issues that are escalated for resolution because if there was no one to escalate to, the team would sort it out anyway!
Now, when we consider the team, if they all went missing for just one day, we would instantly notice the impact. Without the teams and the individual colleagues, we are nothing. It has become a bit of a cliché, but the people are the company. Without the fantastically talented people in the business, we have no business.
In the end we must consider this as we work our way up the greasy pole of the hierarchy: we do not become the boss of more people; we actually serve more people. This is because our success relies upon the efforts of those “below” us. It is up to us to equip our teams with the tools and skills to support the weight of the business above them. They need to be nurtured and supported to work at their peak and therefore allow the hierarchy above them to deliver the short, medium and long term objectives of the business.
So, who is the Top Dog?

The Farm

farmIn the current market, good people are hard to find and even harder to keep. We often encounter a bidding war, when some desperate companies offer eye-watering salaries for what looks like a basic position. If we had unlimited budgets we too could bid high, but that would just be a waste of the company’s precious resources. We have to do something to differentiate our company as a fantastic place to work without breaking the bank. With the right mind sets we can learn how to attract and retain the best staff.
It is well known that I have a farm. Only a small one, with a few horses, pigs, sheep and poultry, but a farm nonetheless. After my family, my farm means more to me than anything else and I’d rather be there than anywhere. This causes me a problem because the farm is not at all financially viable and I need to work to subsidise all of the animals. If I only came into work for the money though, I would most likely only do sufficient work to keep my job. I am fortunate because I have been allowed the freedoms outlined below and I have a great team which competes well with the pull of the farm.
When I consider my team, I realise that they all have their “farm”; something they would rather be doing. If nothing is done to engage them, they too will only do what is necessary for them to keep their job. Provident is a FTSE100 company and as such needs everyone to go those extra miles to keep us at the top. As a manager, this presents me with a great challenge because I must make their working environment sufficiently attractive to compete with their “farm”. This challenge is compounded by the need to stay within financial budgets.
There are many ways to achieve this:
Be flexible
Not all staff are happy working a strict 9 to 5. I allow my team to start and end their day to suit their working mode. Obviously there needs to be some restraint here, but I have no problem with 8 to 4 or 10 to 6. That little bit of “give” can make the team feel more valued.
Home Working
Some members of my team are far more productive working from home than they are in the office. Helping a colleague to juggle family needs with work by remote working can give you a very loyal team member who will always do that bit extra when it is needed. It is important that you monitor productivity because for some people their “farm” is just a little too distracting.
Keep it exciting
It is very easy to fall into a routine of “take a change request from the list, develop, test, deploy and repeat”. This cycle leads to a waste of talent and atrophy of skills. It is vital to keep the team’s skills current. This can be achieved by training, mentoring and allowing the team time to explore new techniques and tools. This “R and D” time is vital for the health of the team and if they are given sufficient time to build their skills and knowledge they will become more loyal and pay you back manifold.

In conclusion, more people leave a job for better opportunities and training. Money will only pull someone from their “farm” for so long. You need to really engage the team to keep them productively on your payroll.

The Carrot and the Stick

carrotandstickAs many of you may know, outside of work I own a smallholding where I keep many animals including horses, sheep and pigs. It is while I am shovelling fertiliser (substitute a word of your choice here!) that I do most of my thinking. I often think of leadership and how I can motivate my team and colleagues. Recently I have found myself connecting the work on the farm with my work in the office and I have had a few revelations.
When I need to get the horses in from the field I can use a couple of techniques; the carrot or the stick.
The stick method (no I don’t actually use a stick!) is to go into the field, get behind the horses and make all those “farmery” noises while waving my arms about like a demented windmill. This is quite effective because the horses are more than keen to get away from the nutter in their field and retreat to the stables with great alacrity.
The carrot method involves standing in the gateway shaking a bucket of carrots and calling to them in a cheerful voice. This can be very effective if you are not bothered about being mugged by a pony for the carrots.
Although both methods end up with the horses in the stable, they have different effects on the behaviour of the horses:
With the stick method you have to go into whichever paddock the horses are grazing every time and do the windmill impression for them. After a while they realise that they can happily graze in a distant corner of the paddock and begin to ignore you. Also, when you finally get them in, both you and the horses are somewhat irate. This makes handling the horses a greater challenge.
With the carrot method, the horses will come running even if you are quite distant. As long as they can see you (or, more accurately the bucket) and hear you, they will come running. When they get into the stables they are more relaxed and easier to handle. Eventually, with patience you get to the magic moment when you don’t actually need the carrots anymore; they will follow you anywhere just with the memory of the carrot.
“So, how does this relate to leadership?” I hear you ask. Here’s how it goes: If you praise and support your team, forgive them their errors and help them to learn from them, help them to improve by coaching and mentoring, they will grow to trust you and will give their all. By treating your team as trusted adults they will return that trust many times over. If however you chose to beat them with the (figurative) stick, you will only get resentment in return and as soon as you move out of sight they will return to underperforming ways.
In conclusion, the carrot has an infinite range and the stick has a range only of the length of the stick.