Public sector engagement: workplace tensions and job pressure

Stress at work
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Fatima Elmi
Research and Development Analyst
Martin Reddington Associates
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Based on an innovative and forward-thinking whitepaper, this blog series highlights several key parts of how a new empoyment deal for public sector staff could revitalise the sector and tackle disengagement.​

Job pressure is a measure of constant perceived excessive workload. Workplace tensions examines an individual’s ability to cope with competing pressures in the workplace such as more-with-less-tension, time pressures affecting quality of service delivery and compliance versus creativity.

Social, economic and political forces over the last five years have significantly shaped tension and job pressure in the local authority sector. Local authorities have been under immense pressure from central government to reduce their expenditure since 2010.

Council employees - particularly front line staff - have felt the burden the most. “No other area of government has been subject to the same squeeze: since the start of the decade spending by local authorities has been reduced by 37% and is scheduled to fall much further over the next 5 years.”(Crew (2016).

Narrative analysis consistently revealed the areas of lack of resources, volume of work and job pressure as the most prominent themes linked to tensions experienced by employees.

The free text analysis gives us detailed insights into how these themes shape workplace attitudes, stress and morals.

“I believe the balance has been tipped to a point where staff cannot meet the level of expectation and staff are becoming more and more stressed by this situation as staff are always keen to do a good job.”

“Our team has reduced so much due to redundancies and whilst we can, and are working differently to compensate for this, it has got to the point where we cannot do anymore. I am concerned about the added pressure on us in the coming months and years.”

“I am often asked to do more and support others. This means that my work is often overlooked, rushed and deadlines are missed- this is not how I like to to work.'

These free text comments are illustrative of the increasing difficulties employees are faced with on a daily basis.

It describes the consequences of having to work in an environment of voluminous workload, tight deadlines, shortage of resources and the requirement for the delivery of high-quality work.

The desire to perform well in the role is becoming compromised, while employees’ capacity to endure working under such tense settings is beginning to decline.

In spite of the negative impact resulting from working under these very challenging conditions, organisations and people must learn to become agile, flexible and creative.

New tensions and job pressures disrupt old patterns of working. They can open up new creative ways of delivering services.

How can employees respond to these tensions and pressures successfully to flourish in their roles?

Key driver analysis performed on workplace tensions and job pressure offered some interesting insights. Having the most appropriate tools served to reduce tension, as did higher professional pride.

Capability - a measure of competence and confidence in one’s self and abilities - was found to help alleviate tension. The more capable an individual perceived themselves to be, the less tension experienced when faced with a difficult situation.

Crucially, our research demonstrated the connections between conversational practice, line management style, capability and tensions. Tensions and pressures shape and are shaped by conversational practice.

The higher the quality of conversational practice, the more capable a person perceives themselves to be and consequently the lower tension levels experienced.

This revelation highlights the central role line managers can play in helping to prevent workplace tension and pressures climbing to levels that are detrimental to not only performance but also to wellbeing.

Supportive line managers encourage employees to speak up in times of difficulty, creating an atmosphere of ‘psychological safety’ where they feel empowered and valued.

The sense of doubt, anxiety, stress and uncertainty resulting from tense situations can be reduced by having an open, engaging and trusting relationship with a line manager, revealed in the following comment:

“My line manager and I have on-going and open conversations about caseload, case complexities, smarter and safer ways of working and shows empathy not only to me but also to all team members.”

This is a good example of a democratic, collaborative and understanding working relationship in which constructive dialogue is routinely practised.

The stresses and strains caused by ‘caseload complexities’ and the need to work ‘smarter’ are all discussed to find workable solutions to these pressures. For this employee having regular, useful conversations with their line manager about factors affecting their performance helps to make them feel more secure about their ability to handle demanding tasks.

This, in turn, reduces tension and pressure that might otherwise arise, supporting sustainable high performance in the long term.

Other comments capture similar sentiment and style of management. The sense of trust and knowledge that one will be guided and supported through challenging times, given clarity and guidance, all serves to build and strengthen self-efficacy.

"I believe that me and my line manager have an open and honest working relationship where we are able to explore issues regarding work/caseload in a way that is beneficial for both of us."

"My line manager and I have regular informal supervision to ensure that she is aware of my cases and any complexities that may be faced."

"We have had discussion about constantly prioritising our workload and my manager has constantly stepped in to assist with the prioritisation of work."

A lack of encouragement to use individual initiative was also found to heighten workplace tension.

When employees are not empowered and inspired by their organisation to engage in critical dialogue to express dissatisfaction or find different and better ways of working then this can also intensify tension levels and consequently suppress employee engagement.

This can be observed in the following free text comments:

"Lack of engagement (i.e. feeling of connection to and involvement with the organization- other than immediate work) in my view this stems from an apparent lack of leadership at the most senior levels in the Council."

"The biggest tension is the lack of support and direction from management and their secretive nature. No one trusts them any longer.  Management need to be more open with a no blame culture."

These two quotes highpoint the consequences of discouraging employees from participating in critical dialogue on an organisation level.

When employees feel they are not consulted, a fissure between the leadership team and the rest of the staff can form. Employees begin to feel alienated from the organisation, subsequently leading to higher tension levels.

Ultimately, the leadership team are perceived as an obstacle to performance rather than an enabler.

References

Crew, T (2016). The strange death of Municipal England. London Reviw of Books, vol 38, 24,
Reddington, M. & Francis, H. (2012) Forging a New Employment Deal. Croner Online Services. 

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