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The Strain of Change

Recently a client of mine referred to his place of work as being very stressful due to the pace of change, as though the stress virus was lurking in the corners of all the meeting rooms, ready to infect people. In fact he saw his job itself as "a very stressful position"; as almost a focal point for stress.

It's important to remember there is a distinction between pressure and stress.

Pressure can come from external sources, such as the demands of the job; the culture (punishing failure etc); leadership style (e.g. aggressive and bullying). It can also arise internally as when someone puts a lot of pressure on themselves by setting high goals for achievement

Non of these pressures need become stressful. Indeed many high performers tell you they thrive on pressure and it helps raise their performance. 

Stress is not something 'out there' that is infectious but is one person's internal reaction to the external pressures. We don't need to go over the long list of well documented ill effects of stress on the body, the mind and therefore, performance.

So what are the choices for intervention if someone is becoming stressed by the pressures of the job?

You can of course attempt where possible to take the pressure out of the situation through investing in business consultancy to focus on the external factors through changes in:
  • Business strategy and goals
  • Job design
  • Working environment
On this last point, re the importance of the working environment, I recently was a guest at an event organised by the British Institute of Facilities Management, when the Stoddart Review was reported. This report looks in detail at the effect the design and utilisation of space has on worker productivity. This is a subject of interest to me because it is unwise to ignore the constant interaction between the external environment and our mental state or 'internal environment'.

There is a very apt saying, "if you can't change the situation (leaving isn't a choice), then change your reaction to it". Of course that's easier said than done but it is the basis of coaching interventions. In the case of feeling stressed at work the coach can help you become aware of what exactly it is you are reacting to with the stress response. Then, although every individual's triggers and thoughts and bodily responses and behaviour will be different, coaching recognises the individuality but some likely areas of experience to explore may be:
  • What meaning do you personally make of the signals you are reacting to? (What do you think it means?)  
  • What is happening to your body? - becoming aware of heart rate, sweating etc
  • How are you behaving as a result?
  • What would you like to have happen instead of this response?
  • Etc.
This is in fact the kind of work my client and I did but before we get to the big question, 'does it work?', it's worth pointing out that at some point he began to think about whether his leadership style might be part of the problem for others. In other words he realised that although there are external situational factors for him - his CEO's demands e.g. - he's part of the external situation for others. So now he's contemplating both coaching for others plus strategic and culture change consultancy as above.

Can coaching help prevent the psychological strain ?

As an independent coaching psychologist I follow the research on this kind of question closely, as you can imagine!

In times of change, whether imposed externally by market forces or internally through restructuring, there will almost inevitably be a lot of pressure in the organisation; the question is to what extent will that pressure be perceived as stressful by managers and will their responses become part of the problem? Furthermore, can coaching help?

The Health and Safety Executive have been funding a large studies of this subject for some time and if you are interested you could start with this paper, describing research into management behaviour and effects on stress levels: Management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work

Also, recent evidence published in the International Coaching Psychology Review* concluded, "...the results indicate that coaching can have a protective effect on psychological health..." with some caveats:

• the effect is directly related to the number of coaching sessions managers are allowed
• the preventative effect only operates for voluntary coaching

These two points do not surprise me and I particularly enjoyed the author's comment that, "it would appear that the effect documented in this study does not conform simply to the idea that ‘coaching is good for your mental health’, but instead with the possibility that ‘a lack of coaching, or being obliged to receive it, can be bad for your mental health’.

* The Preventative Impact of Management Coaching on Psychological Strain; Weinberg; Int Coaching Psych Rev; V11 No1 March 2016

Coaching for Success
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If you would like follow up or discuss any of the ideas put forward please drop me a text to
07778 104964

Mike Duckett

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Coaching for Success · Sheldon House · Plomer Hill · High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire HP13 5JQ · United Kingdom

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