Category Archives: Work

Stress can be a killer for women in high pressure jobs

We are all aware of how stressful work can be at times. Contrary to popular belief not all of it is caused by the deliberate actions of others but usually because of the way we interpret events. Something that is stressful for one person may not be for someone else. Stress can be caused inadvertently by someone lacking social or management skills, and increasingly rudeness at work is being identified as a major cause.

Common sense tells us that rudeness can affect our mood but it also affects our performance, our problem solving ability, and our willingness to work in a collaborative way – and research shows that even witnessing rudeness can create these adverse outcomes and damage the working climate especially in teams that need to collaborate.

Bullying is another source of stress and it might be on the increase again, fuelled by insecurity because of the recession. It also seems that whilst the majority of bullies are men women bullies can be more persistent. There also seem to be gender differences. I’ve found in my work and research that women are more likely to bully using personal attacks whereas men bully under the pretext of performance management.

Now new research has shown that women in high pressure jobs run twice the normal risk of developing heart problems as a direct result of work-related stress. Those reporting work pressure to an excessive degree are also at an increased risk of developing ischaemic heart disease.

The research, published in the Journal of Occupational Health and Environmental Medicine, was based on a 5-year study of over 12,000 Danish nurses aged between 45 and 64. Whilst the link between stress and heart disease is well-established this is one of the first studies on women.

Stressed workers often resort to unhealthy ways of coping such as smoking, eating comfort food, or drinking, which can lead to them becoming overweight and creates a vicious circle. In a study carried out by the author amongst NHS employees nurses had the highest sickness absence rates and also smoked the most. Managers on the other hand rarely took time off but drank more!

A research team at Ohio State University has been studying the effects of stress on health for the last 30 years (psycho-neuro-immunology) and have shown that chronic stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer. stroke, osteoporosis and diabetes. The culprit is stress-induced chronic inflammation as a result of the immune system being in a constant  state of high alert. This in turn wears you down and makes your body less able to fight infections and diseases, heal wounds, and develop antibodies. On a less dramatic level it explains why you can’t shake off that cold or persistent cold-sore when you are stressed.

And the latest research shows that children with difficult childhoods, eg through being abused, are especially susceptible to the physical effects of chronic stress and that their immune systems may learn a hyperactive response to stress which kicks in again when they are facing stressful events as an adult.

The good news is that becoming adept at yoga does lower your stress response.

Updated 2 May 2011: Women with high job strain have a 40% increased risk of cardiovascular (CV) disease compared to those with low job strain, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2010. They defined job strain, a form of psychological stress, as having a demanding job, little or no decision-making authority or opportunities to use you creative or individual skills. Their findings were based on a sample of over 17,000 healthy women who participated in the Women’s Health Study. Primarily white health professionals with an average age of 57, they were tracked for 10 years whilst they provided information about job strain and job insecurity.

Job insecurity was associated with risk factors for CV disease such as high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and excess body weight but not directly associated with heart attacks, strokes and CV death.

The higher CV risks for those who reported high job strain included heart attacks, ischemic strokes, coronary bypass surgery, balloon angioplasty, or death.

The findings that women in jobs with high demand and low control are at risk echo UK research on Civil Servants (The Whitehall studies). The first Whitehall Study compared mortality of people in the highly stratified environment of the British Civil Service over a 10 year period starting in 1967. It showed that among British civil servants, mortality was 3 times higher among those in the lower grade when compared to the higher grade. The more senior one was in the employment hierarchy, the longer one might expect to live compared to people in lower employment grades. It also found higher mortality rates due to all causes but specifically coronary heart disease for men in the lower employment grade when compared to men in higher grades.

Twenty years later, the Whitehall II study, a longitudinal, prospective cohort study of 10,308 women and men, all of whom were employed in the London offices of the British Civil Service at the time they were recruited to the study in 1985, documented a similar gradient in morbidity in women as well as men.  The studies revealed this social gradient for a range of different diseases: heart disease, some cancers, chronic lung disease, gastrointestinal disease, depression, suicide, sickness absence, back pain and general feelings of ill-health.


It’s ALL about Trust

colored_puzzle_connection_1600_wht_9893Maybe it’s because of the elections but every time I open a paper or magazine at the moment there seems to be an article about trust. Whether a columnist having another (justified) rant about bankers or politicians, or Simon Barnes, the Chief Sports writer for The Times, with his take on Jose Mourinho just after his team beat Barcelona, previously judged to be the best team in the world.

He goes on to talk about  coaches and their role in great success stories:  Sir Alf Ramsey’s refusal to drop Stiles during the 1966 World Cup at the risk of losing his own job; Sir Clive Woodward on the 1998 world tour paying for a decent hotel for the team in Cape Town; Bill Sweetenham turning round the fortunes of the Great Britain swimming team from flops in Sydney to winning six medals in Beijing. All these he puts down to belief, and trust – absolute mutual trust.

In an earlier post; “Do you trust your boss?, I referred to research and articles which showed a very low level of trust in bosses, possibly because of the MPs’ expenses scandal. This is potentially catastrophic for organisations as we come out of recession but still face face massive spending cuts and higher taxes, regardless of which party wins the election.

In his book; “The 5 dysfunctions of Teams (Josey Bass)”, Patrick Lencioni makes a persuasive argument that to be an effective team its members first need to have absolute trust in each other and are able to set aside personal agendas for the greater good of the team. Put simply Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions model goes like this:

  1. Absence of Trust: team members need to trust each other on a fundamental, emotional level where they are comfortable being open with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours. This is important because
  2. Fear of conflict: … teams that trust one another are not afraid to engage in passionate debate about key issues. They are not afraid to challenge, disagree, or question each other in order to make great decisions. This is important  because
  3. Lack of commitment: teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around decisions even though they might initially disagree. Team members see that every option has been considered . This is critical because:
  4. Avoidance of Accountability: teams that commit to decisions and standards of performance don’t hesitate to hold each other accountable for those decisions. And they don’t rely on the team leader to do that but go straight to their peers. This matters because
  5. Inattention to results: …teams that trust one another engage in conflict, commit to decisions, and hold each other accountable are more likely to put aside their individual agendas and focus on what is best for the team. They don’t put their departmental politics, career aspirations, or need for status to get in the way of team results that lead to success.

He doesn’t pretend it is easy and developing trust in the first place can be a big ask if you are used to working in a highly competitive environment or a blame culture, where feedback from peers is not the norm. But what is the alternative if you work in an organisation which needs real teams ie groups of people who are interdependent rather than a set of individuals who just happen to report to the same boss but do their own thing?

Most people like working in teams as they provide support and a social context to work but effective teamwork doesn’t just happen without leaders who provide support and resources – and who can be trusted!

Sometimes you just have to tell ’em!

A few years ago the recently appointed CEO of Cisco Systems in America was asked how he got his senior management team to work together so well.

Basically he said he told them they had to work together and if they didn’t they were out! I was reminded of this when I read the piece in the Sunday Times at the end of January; “Just tell them to lift their game”.

Research at Roffey Park had shown that we are not very good at dealing with underperformance or telling people what we want. The article suggests that strong managers get more respect and that a firm consistent approach is better for morale and performance generally.

On the other hand…. some of you may have seen the article in Management Issues which states very clearly that tough controlling leaders with a target-driven approach do not do better when times are hard contrary to what many experts might think.

A 2-year study by think-tank the Work Foundation suggests that the most effective leaders think and act systemically, seeing the bigger picture rather than compartmentalising. These successful leaders are not just people oriented but focus on relationships and are self-confident without being arrogant.

Do you trust your boss?

Leadership is still a hot topic in the press but leaders themselves have been getting a bad press. Employees trust CEOs who do their job well but the leaders also have to be principled and honest.

Management Today in conjunction with the Institute of Leadership and Management carried out a survey of approx 3000 managers and 2500 non-managers to produce an Index of Leadership Trust.

In an article in September’s Management Today describing the survey, about a third of both managers and non-managers reported having no or low trust in their management team! 

And the bigger the organisation the less trust in CEOs; the longer you have worked there the less you trust CEOs and line managers!

Interestingly male non-managers trust female CEOs less than male CEOs (the opposite is true for female non-managers) but trust female line managers slightly more than male ones. There are no differences in trust levels between male and female managers,

Women learning the art of leading men was featured in this article reported in the Sunday Times. It says basically treat them as if they are from a different culture – shades of Men are from Mars?

The trust theme was also picked up on the Observer on 27/9/09 with the headline: “Trust in bosses sinks to all-time low”. They attributed this largely to the MPs’ expenses scandal.

The Trust in Professions survey carried out by the Royal College of Physicians found that only 25% of staff think bosses tell the truth. Doctors by the way remain the most trusted!