By Joanne O’Connell

JUST been given a settlement agreement? Feeling anxious about whether you’ll get a new job? Perhaps you’re not sure you should sign the agreement in the first place. But can you face going into the office now your boss has asked you to leave? No wonder you’re stressed, says Cary L. Cooper CBE, author and distinguished professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University.

About Cary L. Cooper

Cary L. Cooper is a hugely-respected author of over 120 books, he’s also the distinguished professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, and among many other things, he’s the president of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, president of RELATE and ambassador of the Samaritans and he’s been named by HR magazine as the 4th Most Influential Thinker in HR.

So we reckon that Cary knows a thing or two (or millions of things, actually) about dealing with stress at work. That’s why we spoke to him. We asked what he thought about the way settlement agreements are changing the workplace culture and how employees can manage their stress levels. Here’s what he said:

The UK workplace is changing. We’re moving towards the culture of the States where’s there’s a far more robust hire and fire mentality. As a consequence, employees face tougher times.

“The job-for-life went a while ago,” says Cooper: “Just look at the States: employers can say to employees “you’re gone in two weeks” and employees have far fewer rights than they currently do in the UK. But unfortunately, the UK workplace is becoming more like this.”

So, how to you handle it when your boss slaps a settlement agreement on your desk?

“If you’ve been offered a settlement agreement, you’ve got a decision to make,” says Cooper: “Whatever you choose, it can be stressful. If you sign it, it’s likely you’ll need to get another job and it’s a tough economic climate out there. If you refuse to sign it and ask to stay, you’re facing a difficult relationship with your employer and potentially a disciplinary or redundancy situation.”

Of course, the decision you’ll make depends on your personal circumstances but generally speaking certain age groups face particular difficulties, says Cooper. For example, despite age discrimination laws, older workers can struggle more to find new jobs. Those with dependent children are also under particular pressure as they’re likely to have high outgoings and heftier mortgages.

“Even if you get a payment equivalent to nine months’ worth of salary, say, it’s hard to get jobs right now, so it’s likely people will be anxious about making the money last,” says Cooper.

One way to manage your stress levels is to make sure you get the best deal.

Sign on the dotted line

The best-case scenario is that you’re offered a huge pay-out and you’re confident about quickly getting a new job. But let’s be realistic: most employers aren’t that generous. So how to you keep your head and fight for a better deal?

“The key stress with this scenario is the anxiety about replacing your income,” says Cooper: “How long it will take depends on the industry you’re in as well as your skills and experience.

“To improve your situation, try and strike the best deal you can. Perhaps you can ask for some extra funding for further training to improve your job prospects? Make sure you get the best reference you can from your employer and think cleverly about what to ask for as part of the settlement agreement. Some employers will help employees to maximise new opportunities, so ask for what you need as you might just get it. The better placed you are to find another job, the least stressed you are likely to be.”

No can do: you don’t sign

This is potentially far more stressful, says Cooper. “If you’ve been given a settlement agreement, your boss wants you to leave. These things get out and everyone at work will know what’s happened. You’re likely to feel stressed and under-valued.”

In these circumstances, you may well end up leaving your job anyway, says Cooper. If you’re not taken down a disciplinary route that leads to you leaving, you could face redundancy. But that’s just what the employer can officially throw at you. The reality is that staying in an environment where you feel you’re not wanted is miserable and it can mean you end up leaving of your own accord.

“If you carry on working when you’ve been asked to leave, you’ll hate going in every day, and the more stressed you are the worse your performance is likely to be,” says Cooper.

“It depends on your circumstances, but if you decide to stay at work, you should still consider opportunities elsewhere. Try to stay motivated and focus on work so you don’t increase your stress with poor performance issues. Use the fact you’re still in employment to your advantages when looking for jobs in the same industry or spend some time outside work, considering alternatives – such as a career move in another direction, which will make you more fulfilled.”

“The key to lower stress is to maximise your opportunities whether you’re looking to negotiate a better deal from a settlement agreement or remain in your job.”

May 2013

IMPORTANT: The contents of this page are general guidance only and should not therefore be regarded as constituting legal or other advice.