Merilyn Speiser, Catalina Consultants
Merilyn Speiser, Catalina Consultants

The lead up to the end of the year can turn workplaces into "pressure cooker" environments, but HR can take preventative steps to avoid a blowout.

Plenty of early warning signs and red flags can indicate workplace issues, Catalina Consultants founder and principal consultant Merilyn Speiser tells an HR Daily Premium webcast.

Dysfunctional meetings are a common example, and these have a knock-on effect because they become, themselves, a source of stress, Speiser says. Some employees withdraw and barely communicate, whereas others resort to ineffective modes of communication, such as managers who become authoritarian.

Angry outbursts are another example, she adds. "In context, they're understandable but obviously the damage and the potential issues that can arise from those kinds of outbursts are well known."

These issues highlight the importance of maintaining effective workplace communication, which tends to suffer towards the end of the year, with inappropriate exchanges and a lack of face-to-face meetings, Speiser says.

"Times of adversity" can also lead to cliques forming, she adds. "[Employees are] all having a whinge together and that starts to form a bit of a habit so that whenever they get together, be it lunch or some social setting, the issues as they see them are being reinforced."

Repetitive disagreements are also symptomatic of stress and pressure, often taking the form "circular arguments that aren't getting anywhere because people aren't capable in their headspace to stand back and actually be rational and responsive".

These factors all lead to a loss of trust, which is a slippery slope that needs to addressed immediately.

Immediate steps

When these warning signs appear, there are some immediate steps HR can take to minimise or defuse workplace conflict and bad behaviour, Speiser says.

"It starts with the role that we have to support our managers, so giving our managers tools and support to communicate with their people. If I know that September to December is the busiest time for my team, then I need to, at the outset from a preventative perspective, build in more structure to make sure that I'm checking in with them."

HR can work with managers to ensure that they're equipped to address any tell-tale signs that a high-pressure scenario is brewing, Speiser says, noting that towards the end of the year is typically when communication falls away because people are "too busy".

"Clarity of communication and that transparency of what's going on from a leadership perspective is really important. Whatever we can do to set up some structure or create an appetite for encouraging our people to have these vehicles for communication is a really good thing."

A simple but effective approach is to encourage employees to take lunch breaks. "How many times do you see people under extreme pressure where their workload is really heightened, and they just don't leave their desk? Whatever form it takes, it's the importance of having a break."

Reducing non-essential distractions is critical, and organisations should question, at a senior level, what elements are adding an unnecessary layer of pressure.

"I guess sometimes we're [HR] accused of being that 'noise', so it's being really mindful of what pressures we're putting on the business that, at that point of time, are not really business critical. But it's certainly not restricted to HR, this is across the business."

Keeping an eye on the hours employees are working, and checking in with those who are taking more personal leave than usual is also important, Speiser says.

Another immediate step HR can take is to monitor when employees take a holiday or time off; she encourages organisations to create a culture where it's acceptable to have conversations about taking breaks.

"If it's the case that there's a large project or it's a busy time of year and maybe there's a block-out in terms of people taking leave, look at it maybe a little differently, even if it's just an afternoon before a weekend or coming in late another day."

Speiser explains more about why this time of year can be problematic, and sets out proactive and responsive steps HR can take to minimise issues, in the full webcast, accessible with HR Daily Premium membership – upgrade here if you're not a premium member.