How Workers’ Stress is a Symptom of a Greater Problem

The modern organization is defined by stress. The workplace doesn’t just have stress, it’s saturated with it. There is ‘good’ stress – the kind that motivates people and is an integral part of any busy working life. And then there is bad stress – the kind that impacts people and erodes at organizational productivity. Organizational leaders need to know one thing: bad stress in the workplace is categorically not inevitable. But it is in their hands to ensure that stress defines their organization positively. Leadership and development trainers need to know that – and act accordingly in their training interventions.

Stress Contextualized

Dr. Susan Michie defines stress as “the psychological and physical state that results when the resources of the individual are not sufficient to cope with the demands and pressures of the situation”. Importantly, it does not occur in a vacuum – it is entirely situational and contextual. That is critically important when training leaders on how to develop a positive stress culture in an organization – people are not ‘spontaneously’ stressed. Nor is their stress always simply ‘personal’ or down to their ‘personality’. They are stressed for tangible reasons within a (usually) principally organizational context and it is that context which should determine how an organization combats stress as negative influence.

The Huge Dimensions of Stress

Eric Garton wrote in the Harvard Business Review that stressed-out employees cost an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending in the United States – and that doesn’t even begin to cover what he calls “the true cost to business [which] can be far greater, thanks to low productivity across organizations, high turnover, and the loss of the most capable talent”. The American Institute for Stress puts the price tag for U.S. industry due to stress even higher, i.e. at over $300 billion annually. The Institute states this is thanks to factors such as:

  • Accidents
  • Absenteeism
  • Employee turnover
  • Diminished productivity
  • Direct medical, legal, and insurance costs, including workers’ compensation awards as well as tort and FELA judgments

The workplace stress pinch is international. Padma et al. (2015) studied how employees working in India’s booming IT industry are prone to a swathe of health problems due to continuous physical and mental stress in their work.  The researchers also found that factors such as globalization and privatization, which have resulted in job insecurity and the constant threat of rapid obsolescence of skills, are also contributory causes of stress.

Stress as Organizational Canary

With regard to workplace stress, Eric Garton puts it very succinctly: “The problem is the company, not the person”. For too long stress had been seen as the purview (read: responsibility) of the employee – and they have been judged accordingly. That is contradicted by evidence, such as the extensive review of work factors associated with psychological ill health and absenteeism undertaken by Michie and Williams (2001) which found the principal causes of workplace stress to be:

  • long working hours, workloads and allied pressure
  • the effects of these factors on employees’ personal lives
  • lack of control over work and lack of participation in decision-making
  • poor social support in the workplace
  • unclear management and poor management styles

All of the factors above are organizationally, not personally, derived. And leadership must never assume that just because people remain in their jobs that they are coping with stress, never mind happy in their work. People often feel compelled to stay in their jobs for a multitude of reasons, from the financial and logistical to the purely practical. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) cautions that people may stay in a job they don’t particularly like or even hate solely because of the so-called “golden handcuff,” i.e. their salary, pension, benefits and ‘perks” that keep people shackled to a job regardless of how much stress they are encountering.

What Leaders Need to Do

The role of the facilitator in leadership and development is to guide leaders and potential leaders to a better understanding of how stress can make or break their organization. Thankfully, there is a wealth of information and studies online that can facilitate this learning process. To start, leaders need to get off their ‘high horse’ and stop assuming that they are the most stressed due to their high levels of responsibility. Karen Firestone makes the interesting point that the stress of those in leadership is comfortably offset by factors such as status, autonomy, and job security. Lower level employees can often deal with greater aggregated stress.

In another Harvard Business Review article, Eric Garton offers the following leadership pointers:

  • Own up to their role in creating the workplace stress that leads to burnout
  • Heavy workloads do not help – neither does job insecurity or frustrating work routines that include too many meetings and far too little time for creative work.
  • Excessive collaboration occurs when there are too many decision-makers and too many decision-making nodes. Organizational structures and routines need to be amended, even hacked, where needed. Free people up.
  • Adopt Agile principles – leaders can motivate and energize teams, and individual team members obtain a way to ‘own’ their results.

Susan Michie advocates the hugely respected Scandinavian work model, which is based upon:

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  • Employees are given the opportunity to participate in the design of their own work situation / workplace
  • Technology, work organisation, and job content are designed so that employees are not unduly exposed to physical or mental stressors
  • Closely controlled or restricted work is avoided or limited
  • Opportunities for personal and vocational development should be provided at all times

It’s the humdrum routines that shape organizational culture, not the pep rallies. Sue Pridham cautions that, “Culture is not determined by motivational words on a wall but by an organization’s day-to-day practices and routines”. And the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) makes the pertinent point that change doesn’t always have to be organizational, i.e. simple changes in team members, line managers or the type of work or technology used can also assist in minimizing stress levels – and leaders need to know that.

Leaders need to view an organization as a living, organic thing. It is not static and it is not devoid of the human experience therein. It is the sum total of all that human endeavor, talent, experience, and interaction. As such, organizational leaders need to be trained to fully understand that how their staff is valued and how employees are able to cope with stress is of paramount importance. In fact, it can be the very difference between an organization’s success or failure.

This blog originally appeared at Strategics360.

Susan Ranford

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