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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arboricultural Association.

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Stress and team leaders

Author:  Paul Elcoat
  09/07/2018
Last Updated:  10/07/2018

Like most of my articles, the content of this one is an overview and therefore necessarily a simplification of some complex issues; it has been written because it is what I see going on at the moment. If I see it, I say it with the best of intentions and I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone.

Previous feedback from employers shows that sharing this overview is helpful as it makes them feel less alone and that the suggested solutions are useful. Several operators have let me know that their interpretation of my stories has helped them in their career because it has shown them what an employer needs and therefore what they need to do.

Challenges

2017 was a stressful year for contractors. There had been plenty of work about but trying to find staff to undertake the work was proving to be very difficult.

What we do is probably a pretty good barometer of what is going on at the better end of contracting. I would estimate the split in my workload this year to be about 40% on pre-qualification questionnaires, tenders and bidding against a schedule of rates, 20% working toward new certification, 20% maintaining current certification, 5% dealing with incidents, 5% on a smattering of other stuff such as industry standards development and 10% maintaining and improving our own business.I spend every day with a different company helping with tasks as detailed above, probably about 100 companies in a 230-day working year as with many of them I will be working on a one-day-per-month development project. Almost without exception, at the end of every day the owners and directors ask me if I hear of anyone looking for a job please could I send them in their direction.

Figure 1: Typical organisation structure of small- to medium-sized companies.

We are not awash with leadership talent in the industry and in my experience the typical organisational structure in small- to medium-sized contracting companies is outlined in Figure 1. The vacancy at the righthand man/woman level is a real problem and from my observations, it is one of the main causes of stress, depression and anxiety in business owners and directors. This is very closely followed by the continual need to nanny the so-called team leaders.

Having loads of work, more coming in and customers calling to ask if you can just fit something else in is great, but it is stressful. When operators then announce that they are leaving to start their own ‘business’ and by the way they won’t be in on Monday, the lid can blow off the kettle.

Remember: you’re not alone

Please excuse my reference to ‘men’ in the following paragraphs as I am sure that the same applies to female colleagues, but I don’t yet have experience of that and of course I am a bloke with a male outlook on life.

At risk of sounding dramatic, I talk to grown men that are on the verge of tears because despite the massive workload and the effort that they put into every day, they can’t ever seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel and they are not experiencing the joy that is surely meant to come as a result of hard work and professionalism.

I have been involved in several conversations and situations over the last 12–18 months which, from my non-medical background, I am pretty sure would be diagnosed as mental illness resulting from the factors mentioned above. Big men with years in the job are telling me that they just can’t cope anymore and that the prospect of the next ten years being the same as the previous ten is making them question their place in the world.

Here is a scenario which might ring true with readers who may also be slipping down this slope.

I have noticed that many of the owners and directors that I meet in the industry share my own values in terms of what a man should be, and this is compounded by their impressions of what they think society thinks a man should be. I have been accused of having a Victorian outlook and perhaps that is the way I am wired, so apologies if that comes across.

I hear men tell me about how proud they are that due to their own hard work they are able to provide for their family and how the primary motivator is to be seen as a hero by their wife and children, but then in the very next breath they are sharing terribly sad feelings.

The scenario tends to follow this pattern: proud hard-working man, long hours, early mornings, late nights, doesn’t see much of the children and rarely now shares quality experiences with his wife. All of this is OK, though, because a man’s role is that of father and provider and as long as everyone is happy and has what they need he is doing a great job.

Obviously after working the long days and the 70-hour week, he is tired and feels just a little more worn down every day. He’s proud, though, and gets an enormous feeling of satisfaction when he hears the story that his son and daughter did a wonderful job in the school play. Shame he couldn’t be there of course, but not to worry; maybe next time. The problem is exacerbated by the point of view of the family; yes, they have all of the stuff but what they see in the evening is a tired and intolerant man who tends to be a bit cross a lot of the time. After a while, the man picks up on the feeling of not being as popular as he feels he should be: ‘where is the appreciation and love’ that he should be getting for all of the hard work and sacrifice? At home it seems like a team of 3 and a team of 1 rather than a family of 4.

This spiral continues, and as could easily be predicted, leads to the man questioning his purpose. Thoughts then become irrational and the outcome is not good.

If this article is tweaking a nerve, let this be a wake-up call. Take a step back for a few minutes and think it over. Let me tell you this: it is not just you, it is most of us.

Don’t keep it to yourself, pick up the phone and speak to a friend in business and tell them about this article and about your own feelings. I would bet that as soon as you say it they will come back at you with the same story.

Show the article to your wife and then go out with her for the evening and discuss it. Do not keep it all bottled up because at some time the cork will pop.

Here is a genuine offer – call me and let’s talk – I am not going to charge you for that.

If you prefer I can give you the contact details of any number of really lovely people that would be very happy to spend an hour complaining about arboriculture with you.

Just to say again, I am not a doctor and my medical background is in counselling trees. All I know is that it helps me to talk things over with colleagues and many a company owner has thanked me for listening. Not too long ago I arrived at the yard of one of our clients and before I even got the word ‘hi’ out of my mouth he came over and said ‘Paul – I need a hug’. He then proceeded to squeeze most of the air out of me.

I don’t think there is one magic solution, but I do think that the vast majority of organisations are run by one main person who shoulders everything.

Team leaders must … lead!

An observation that continually frustrates me is how team leaders/crew leaders/foremen/gangers, whatever the company calls them, love the title and the enhanced rate of pay but they are not so happy about stepping up to the requirements of the job.

It is a trend in the arb industry for team leaders to treat their role as nothing more than a job title. It is about leadership, boys and girls!

On site, everything is down to you: you have people to look after, equipment to take care of, work to complete, customers to satisfy, profit to make and weight to take off the shoulders of the people that are keeping the work coming in.

I have run hundreds of team leader briefing sessions and please don’t think I am calling these people ugly because they are mostly good technicians, but they need training in what the role of team leader is and the expectations of the company.

There are a handful of high-end companies out there that are putting together really excellent team leader induction and training packages and my prediction is that these companies will jump even further ahead of the rest as a result of being so forwardthinking. This will also of course reduce the stress levels of the boss and, in the fullness of time, enable the better candidates to rise to the level of right-hand man/woman.

I can think of one particular director in Kent who is currently spinning a lot of plates. He must be super stressed, but he always appears to be as cool as a cucumber. This is one of the companies that is putting a lot into team leader development and so, to me, a perfect example of ‘investment and development makes it better’.

Team leaders, site supervisors, first line managers or whatever you decide to call them do not appreciate the extent of their responsibilities or their legal liabilities.I would like to highlight these responsibilities and liabilities with reference to Section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act and a tragic accident which resulted in a roof worker being paralysed and the prosecution of the site supervisor.

Health and Safety at Work Act – Section 37

37 Offences by bodies corporate

(1) Where an offence under any of the relevant statutory provisions committed by a body corporate is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to have been attributable to any neglect on the part of, any director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate or a person who was purporting to act in any such capacity, he as well as the body corporate shall be guilty of that offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.

To cut a long explanation short, the company will be in trouble but very quickly the pointer will settle at whoever it was that was in control of the operation.

If the team leader was negligent …

  • not doing what a reasonable and prudent person would do
  • or doing what a reasonable and prudent person would not have done

If they consented …

‘I know we should dismantle it, but the boss says the money is tight so let’s just knock it over.’

If they connived …

‘If we can get this smashed down by lunchtime we will both make a bonus this afternoon.’

‘That tree really needs a MEWP but don’t tell the lads because there isn’t the money on the job.’

Case study

This case study is from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) but names have been amended to save embarrassment.

A site supervisor was fined after a coworker was left paralysed after falling 10m from the roof of a Tyneside warehouse.

Temporary employee Peter fell from an unprotected and fragile roof after supervisor Tony allowed workers, who were removing cement sheets, to go onto the roof, ignoring his company’s safety policy.

Peter suffered multiple injuries and has been left paralysed from the neck down as a result of the fall.

The Health and Safety Executive prosecuted site supervisor Tony after an investigation into the incident.

Durham Crown Court heard Peter and colleagues were removing roof sheets by gaining access from below via a scissor lift. HSE found that when this became difficult, Tony allowed the workers to go onto the roof itself but without the knowledge of his contracts manager as was required.

At one stage Peter got onto the roof to strip off more sheets, but trod on a loose skylight panel that gave way under him. He fell around 10m to the ground below.

The court was told Peter’s employer, which had a contract to remove asbestos cement roofs from a number of warehouses at the site, had identified them as fragile. The company had agreed a system of work where its employees used scissor lifts, removing the roof sheets from the underside.

Tony supervised the work on site, but when they encountered problems in the work he did not bring these to the attention of the contracts manager as required by the company procedure. Instead he permitted a change to the system of work, whereby he and other employees went onto the roof itself to carry out some of the work.

The HSE found the company’s agreed system was safe but by changing it, Tony had sanctioned an unsafe system of work. The company was unaware of the changed way of working and Tony had failed to consult with them.

Tony pleaded guilty at a hearing to breaching Regulation 4(1)(b) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 between 4 August and 5 September 2011 by failing to properly supervise work at height and make sure it was carried out safely. He was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £9,765.88 costs.

Speaking after the case Peter said,‘I welcome the fact that the HSE has taken this action and I hope that this means what happened to me won’t happen to anyone else.’

HSE Inspector added, ‘This incident has had a devastating and life-changing impact on Peter and his family.

‘Tony allowed some of the work to be undertaken on the roof without any measures in place to guard against falls and injury. He was not authorised to make changes of this nature and also failed to discuss the changes with his employer.

‘Those who supervise work at height have a responsibility to ensure that it is carried out in a manner which is safe and which guards against the risk of injury from a fall. Such injuries, if not fatal, may result in a lifelong disability for the injured person.’

As ever, I hope my observations are useful and please do hesitate to call me if you would like to talk to someone.

Paul Elcoat runs Elcoat Ltd who specialise in helping arb businesses get things right and win work. Paul would be happy to take questions or comments from readers by email: paul@paulelcoat.co.uk or telephone: 020 7193 5611 or 07800 615900..