Managing Stress at Work

With the challenging economic times, most employers have experienced some sort of decline in business, reduction in force, hiring or pay freeze.  Hence, fear for job security is high, workloads have increased, & company expectations are higher.  To make matters worse, a recent Florida State University business school study shows bosses have become more demanding, & politicking, sucking up, & backstabbing in the office are on the rise.  These factors alone have employee stress levels going through the ceiling.  Of course this doesn’t account for normal stresses employees experience at home like financial pressures, marital conflict, health challenges & other stressors of life.  Stress is everyone’s problem.  It can be triggered by war talk, terrorism fears, family challenges, personal debt, or any of the common tensions on the job—50-hour weeks, demanding bosses, or concerns about workplace violence.

Stress Consequences

A certain amount of daily stress is normal.  Stress is simply your reaction, either positive or negative, to change, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. When stress places prolonged or extreme pressure on your coping mechanisms, it can become a clinical problem requiring professional help.  Continuing high levels of stress can wreak havoc on the digestive & nervous systems, leading to irritable bowel syndrome, recurrent headaches, & heart attacks.  The psychological symptoms often come in the form of burnout (losing interest in work) & depression.  From an employment standpoint it can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism & employee burnout or disengagement.

Stress Defined

“Stress is the internal, physiological reaction to external events,” says Bruce Cryer, CEO of HeartMath.  Dozens of times a day, he says, stress-triggering events cause the body to produce hundreds of biochemical changes.  Stress comes from how you perceive your situation.  The very thoughts you have can worsen your stress reaction, says Dr. Jeff Brantley.  For example, one day your boss emerges from a long, closed-door meeting looking upset.  Then she emails you requesting a meeting.  Do you immediately think you’re going to be fired?  “Your mind thinks catastrophe, which triggers your body to go into a stress reaction,” Brantley says.  When outside factors, like toxic work environments are present, biological responses such as higher blood pressure & more serious response occur according to Dr. Peter Schnall of the University of California.   It is in the best interest of employers to limit stress at work & find ways to help employees cope with stress in their lives.  There are a number of ways companies can help reduce & control stress.

Company Stress Control Techniques

Efforts to impact stress should be linked to business outcomes to get any real attention.  Show how reducing stress in sales can increases sales output & you’ll have everyone’s attention.  Track productivity, absenteeism, & turnover to provide measures to monitor as you begin stress control techniques.

Stress Assessment

It’s crucial to determine at the onset what your employees perceive as the root causes of their stress, before jumping in with a stress management program.  Conduct an employee opinion survey, do interviews, or in some other way get input from employees.

Balance Work & Family Life

Where possible, encourage greater balance between work & family.  Encourage employees to take weekends, vacation days, & breaks.  People need to disconnect from work, by spending time   with their families or following a passion, not chained to email or the phone every day.

Supervisor Training

Authoritarian, non-communicative supervisors & those lacking in good interpersonal skills create unnecessary stress in the work environment.  It is stressful being managed by someone who doesn’t know how to manage & perhaps compensates for their insecurity by being controlling. Train leaders how to interact & work with employees to create less stress & increased productivity.

Work Control, Expectations & Accountability

When possible give employees control over work outcomes & help them see how what they do impacts customers & the business.  Set clear, realistic expectations & give regular feedback helping employees feel accountable, knowing where they stand.  Give recognition showing appreciation whenever possible.

Avoid “Firefight” Mode

We all have times when we have to put forth the extra effort to meet an approaching deadline or solve a challenging customer problem.  It’s a problem when this becomes the typical day, not the exception.  Manage workloads & time pressure when there are down times, to balance out the stressed times.  Get out of firefight mode!

Organize, Plan & Prioritize

Disorganization, lack of planning, & unclear priorities create unnecessary stress.  Organize work flow & work areas.  Plan out company, team, & individual work strategy, clearly defining key performance indicators, due dates & expectations every quarter, if not monthly, weekly, & in some cases daily.  Identify & focus on the most important action priorities – this quarter, this week, & today.  Organize & streamline your routine tasks.  Create a “stop doing list” to eliminate or delegate low priority tasks wherever possible. Make sure employees have a strong voice in setting expectations & work plans.  Involvement gives them control & reduces stress.

Build Job Security

Although we never want to promisecomplete job security, you can do the following to increase jobsecurity perception:

  • Share positive company results & business changes.
  • Increase the amount of communication with employees.
  • Celebrate small wins & progress.
  • Recognize accomplishments.
  • Train & develop employees.
  • Involve employees in things that impact them & in coming up with new ideas, cost containment, & ways to make improvement.