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What leaders can do for workplace stress

Award-winning broadcaster and author Dr Norman Swan on workplace mental health

Norman Swan - Presentation Landscape Image URL - 1920x1080


Nobody likes a boss breathing down their neck. If you’ve ever been micromanaged (an "accidental diminisher" leadership trait) you’ll know the feeling. It saps energy and kills motivation. It’s a distressing sense of not being in control of your own destiny.


The locus of control explained

Dr Norman Swan says “locus of control” includes how much “say” you feel you have over decisions in your life. If that locus of control is elsewhere, it creates chronic stress.

“Usually, it’s not the CEO. It’s usually some middle level person, often in a system where they’ve got poor management, they’re micromanaged, they’re not allowed to get on with things and they feel really pressed,” Dr Swan says.


The mind and the body in lockstep

The broadcaster and author (So You Think You Know What’s Good for You?) says it can also happen in the community. A single parent on a pension with three kids, for example, can feel a loss of their locus of control. 

In our interview he explained:

·       What happens in your body affects your mind, brain, mood, and how you think.

·       What happens in your brain affects your body and how you perceive the external environment.

“We all need some stress in our lives to actually perform well. That’s not what we’re talking about here,” says Dr Swan. “We’re talking about chronic unremitting stress, which is really erosive, where you just don’t feel you have control.”


Immune system doesn’t work that well

Dr Swan says a loss of locus of control can cause:

·       your blood pressure to go up

·       your immune system to not work as well.

·       A loss of sense of self-efficacy and decision-making capacity.

He says it’s been shown that, for example, women with breast cancer (no matter how highly educated they are) can feel that loss of locus of control within weeks of starting chemotherapy and radiation because the system takes over from them. They lose that sense of agency.



What leaders and business owners can do for their employees

Dr Swan says trust is probably the most important word to restore the locus of control in employees.

“You’ve got to listen, so your ears are your most important organ here,” he says.

Directing his comments to leaders, he advises them not to make the assumption that you know what’s going on, you’ve got to listen. He shares a personal story.

“We ran a session for our [health channel] employees where the executive just listened to what their issues were. And some of them were things that we didn’t expect, and our solutions were not ones that we thought we needed to do.”


Clear communication

Listening starts to bring that locus of control back to the individual, he says, because they can express themselves.

“But then the listening has got to translate into clear communication and setting of expectations, there’s not everything that you can solve.”


Set clear objectives and allow people to decide how to achieve them

He cites a failure of clear communication, where people are confused and uncertain, as a moment where trust can be lost.

“So trust is actually probably the most important word here, is if you say you can deliver, you deliver.”

 If you can’t, he says, you say that and just cop it. It’s good management principles; set clear objectives and allow some people latitude in how they achieve them.


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