Workplace pressures, such as workload and manager behaviour are two of the central influences on psychological wellbeing at work. This is true in normal times - and even more important during the current pandemic and our recovery from it. Research into workplace pressures has identified a core of specific pressures that combine to either support or damage mental health. The three main pressures are: Demands, Control and Resources & Support. Challenging work demands are actually healthy, otherwise how can you feel any sense of achievement? So a degree of pressure is fine but there is a difference between "Challenge" and "Hindrance" pressures. Pressures that provide a fair challenge can motivate people and help to make work meaningful and satisfying. Pressures that hinder performance and make it harder for people to achieve their goals have the opposite effect and create undesirable stress.
People can manage challenging job demands much better when they have a good degree of control in how they do their work and they have the right resources and support to do the job. If demands are high but control is absent or resources are not there, then it becomes much more difficult to feel on top of things - and that's when mental health and work performance can start to suffer.
A more detailed view of the workplace pressures reveals six sources of pressure:
- Resources and communication (pressure from lack of resources or information)
- Control and autonomy (limitations on how the job is done or freedom to make decisions)
- Balanced workload (peaks and troughs in workload, difficult deadlines, unsocial hours, work life balance challenges)
- Job security & change (pressure from change and uncertainty about the future)
- Work relationships (high pressure relationships with colleagues, customers, bosses)
- Job conditions (pressure from working conditions or pay and benefits)
You can find some free resources designed to help individuals cope better with job pressures here.
A very clear finding from psychological research, which I expect won't be a surprise, is that managers are very important when it comes to mental health at work. In fact, even when controlling for other factors such as support from home, stressful life events and support from others at work, a manager has an important impact on psychological wellbeing. In normal times and throughout the current crisis a manager's focus should be to understand the specific pressures that the members of his or her workgroup are experiencing. These pressures will fall into the areas mentioned above but the emphasis will be different from normal. It will be different for different people and will change as we move through the different phases. For example, for some people the difficulties of working from home may mean that job conditions are a major problem, this could improve with additional resources and then workload may become more important. A successful manager will get the best out of people and help to retain their wellbeing by monitoring the pressures on his or her team and trying to ensure that they are a positive source of challenge and motivation, rather than hindrance and stress.
Professor Ivan Robertson is a Founding Director of Robertson Cooper Ltd and Emeritus Professor of Work & Organisational Psychology at The University of Manchester. He previously held senior roles at the university including Head of Manchester School of Management and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (of UMIST) After founding the company, with Sir Cary Cooper, he was managing director from 2002 until he handed over to our current MD Ben Moss in 2010. He has worked on consulting assignments across all sectors of the economy and across the world.