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December 4, 2009

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Office safety- Avoid the overload

There is a general perception that offices are safer and healthier places in which to work than more traditional industries, where the hazards are more evident. However, the demands of new technology, and the effects of the adverse economic climate, among other developments, are conspiring to wreak havoc on the well-being of office-based workers. John Hamilton suggests how to deal with the situation.

The modern office workplace presents myriad threats to workers’ health, which are just as real as those in construction or manufacturing. Much of this relates to the role that technology has played in improving workplace efficiency over the past 20 years, but the current economic doldrums, too, is playing a part, with employees being asked to do more work, often with less resource, and against a backdrop of uncertainty.

A recent study of employee absence by a large FTSE company showed its level of ill-health absence, particularly that driven by stress, was 150 times that caused by safety incidents and was costing the company 1.5 per cent of its overall working time.

Much of the focus on improving workers’ health is on line managers, particularly when it comes to managing workloads, better communication, and improving resources. The Health and Safety Executive, together with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, has undertaken a number of studies1 that have identified the important role that everyday management competencies play in controlling workplace pressure.

However, employees themselves also have an important role to play in preventing everyday working life from impacting on their health. Being better organised and making better use of time are obvious ways to improve our ability to cope with the demands of the job. This often means being smarter about the way we do our jobs, such as how we use e-mail, or manage meetings.

Priorities, priorities

It is often said that if you have 30 priorities, then you have no priorities. How do you decide what needs doing and when? Some tasks have obvious deadlines, but others, particularly more complex pieces of work, need careful planning and preparation. A simple prioritisation technique, such as the Johari window,2 can help separate out what is a top priority, what is important but not urgent, what can be rescheduled, and help question tasks that don’t need doing at all.

To be truly effective this needs to be positioned within a wider approach to work-life balance. This does not mean that the time and energy spent in work and that spent in the rest of your life has to be equal, but it does mean that you have to be satisfied with the outcome. Firstly, be aware of different demands on your time and energy and find the ability to make choices on how you allocate your time between these demands. To do this, think about what values you wish to apply to your choices. This will help you be more controlled and more conscious about the choices you make.

E-mail overload

The biggest single invention to impact on the pace of the modern office is e-mail. No longer does business information take days to be conveyed around the company and into the outside world by memo and letter. The pressure to transact business at the speed of light has meant that for many office workers, e-mail is their biggest source of stress. However, a few simple tips can help keep e-mail managed, organised and under control.

Start by turning off the ‘you got mail’ message box that appears every time an e-mail lands in your inbox. It distracts you from the report you’re writing, or other important task you’re doing, so that you lose concentration and work less effectively. Schedule some time into your diary for tackling your e-mails, in the same way you would for other work activities, particularly when you return from leave, or a period of time away from the office, and your inbox is overflowing.

When you are faced with a large number of messages, it’s helpful to filter them into different batches. You can either tag the e-mail subject line, or, better still, create a separate folder for them called something like ‘pending action’. Use ‘reply asap’ for the most urgent, ‘to do’ for those that need less urgent attention, and ‘later’ for those that can wait. Keeping your inbox clear in this way is a really useful way of not feeling overawed by e-mail.

Once you’ve read an e-mail, reply to it straight away. There is a danger that once an e-mail appears as ‘read’ it might get forgotten about altogether. It’s also less time-consuming, as you will probably have to re-read the e-mail anyway to remember what it said. Keep replies short and sweet; it’s likely the recipient is as busy as you are. Liberal use of paragraphs makes the e-mail easier to read and helps key points stand out. Read the e-mail through before you click ‘send’ — spell-checking it is not enough. If you inadvertently miss out the word ‘not’, for example, you might be committing yourself to views or actions you might not have intended! Finally, remember NOT TO SHOUT.

Meeting madness

A close second to ‘death by e-mail’ is the torture of spending unproductive time in poorly-run meetings. Meetings are an expensive use of an organisation’s resource, yet the effort put into running them is not always taken as seriously. Well-run meetings can be worthwhile contributors to productivity, and health and safety practitioners — who generally arrange quite a lot of meetings — should keep the following features of a good meeting in mind.

The right meeting starts with having the right people there. This might sound obvious, but how many meetings involve people who are there purely out of status or obligation, not because they can, or need to contribute to the matters in hand. Several years ago, a well-known supermarket employed a ‘two-feet rule’, whereby if you found yourself sat in a meeting that was not relevant to you, then you used your two feet and walked out. Not ideal in practice, perhaps, but the sentiment was right.

If you are organising the meeting, develop the agenda based on what the outcome of the meeting needs to be and the activities that need to happen to achieve that. Ideally, the agenda should be designed to give everyone a chance to contribute early on, maybe by giving an update from a previous meeting. Each agenda item should have the action required of it — for instance, whether it is for information only, for approval, or for discussion. Ensure that attendees receive the agenda in advance, together with any outstanding actions from a previous meeting.

Meetings should always start on time. This respects those who show up on time, and reminds late-comers you are serious about the meeting. You may need to establish ground rules for the meeting, including confidentiality, active participation, maintaining focus, and good timekeeping.

Finally, ask for honest feedback from attendees on how the meeting is going; don’t wait until the end, when it is too late to do anything about it. Don’t forget to end the meeting on time and, ideally, on a positive note.

All for one

It’s not uncommon for staff to complain about a lack of support from their manager, but the manager is not the only source of support. More often than not it is colleagues who provide a vital source of information, advice, and practical assistance, which helps us cope with our work. A happy workplace is built on the good working relationships you have with colleagues. This doesn’t mean being everyone’s best friend, but it does mean working with people you can trust, respect, and communicate with.

Trying to understand the issues that impact on our colleagues can help us appreciate the pressure they are under: when they are likely to be able to lend a hand or provide some help, when they need to be left alone to get on with their tasks, and when they would like a little support themselves. If you are aware that a colleague or another team is under pressure at a particular time and you have spare capacity, offering to help will not only demonstrate strong mutual support but may also ensure that when you need assistance at a later date it is there for you.

While employers are not responsible for stress that is not work-related, they can be sympathetic to the needs of employees who are having a hard time. Showing empathy for colleagues during difficult times, whether personal or work-related, will provide tremendous support for that individual. Life happens, and it may be you who needs the support next. To this end, many employers have measures in place that will help their staff, irrespective of what the cause is, such as employee assistance programmes, flexible working policies, and arrangements for emergency leave.

In short…

Like any other workplace hazard, the best solution to tackling stress is prevention. While the role of the manager is important in ensuring that workplace pressure is not excessive or prolonged, and that everyone is treated fairly, staff themselves have responsibility for their own well-being. This comes from a combination of increasing their resilience to a reasonable amount of pressure at work (because sometimes the job is what the job is) and by how they live their life outside of work. Employers who take a broader view of employee well-being will see the benefits of a happier and healthier workforce, most obviously in the form of greater productivity.  

1    HSE and CIPD (2009): Line management behaviour and stress at work —
2    Prioritising tools — the Johari Window, Leeds Met Guidance Sheet —

John Hamilton is head of safety, health and well-being at Leeds Metropolitan University.

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