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How to Lower Workplace Stress

Cardiovascular Fitness for Organizations

Stress asleep at deskWe know that on a personal level, stress can damage our health, our quality or life or even kill us. A vast literature and dozens of research studies have documented the effects of stress on our psyches, our cardiovascular systems and our longevity. Now, an increasing body of knowledge suggests an intriguing parallel between the effects of life stressors on the individual human organism and the effects of workplace stress on organizations.

The long, slow recovery from the Great Recession has created a perfect incubator for workplace stress. Leery of over-investing and over-hiring, many organizations are running "lean," asking employees to do more and work harder, sometimes with less in the way of materials, resources, recognition and reward. Business realities such as increased competition both domestic and international, mergers and acquisitions and expansion into new markets can also be sources of workplace stress. Workplace stress can even be internally generated, with harsh management or even an unsupportive or uncivil workplace making the work environment stressful for employees. A recent NY Times article summarizes the toll that some of these workplace stressors place on employees.

The Hidden Costs of Workplace Stress

But just as a stressed-out individual may be headed for a host of later health problems, so may stressful organizations be setting themselves up for hidden costs and problems down the road. We know directly from our own work conducting employee surveys for hundreds of businesses, non-profits and government agencies that there is a negative correlation between perceived stress and overall job satisfaction - the more stressful the work place the lower the overall level of job satisfaction. A stressful workplace is a dissatisfied workplace and a vast body of literature shows that employee satisfaction is linked to a number of key business metrics - higher customer satisfaction, improved employee engagement and productivity, lower turnover costs, and even higher stock prices. So there is a clear causal chain - too much stress leads to lower employee satisfaction, with associated declines in positive metrics (productivity, customer satisfaction, etc.) and increases in negative metrics such as turnover and other costs related to employee disengagement.

Obviously, organizations cannot insulate themselves or their employees from many of the causes of workplace stress. Competition will always be present, mergers and acquisitions will occur and the pressure to run at lean staffing levels will not relent. What organizations can do, however, is take a pro-active view to identifying, understanding, moderating and mediating workplace stress and its effects.

workplace stress

Taking Your Stress "Temperature"

An important first step in dealing with workplace stress on an organizational level is diagnosing where your organization stands in terms of the level of stress employees are experiencing. This is comparable to measuring blood pressure, cholesterol levels and heart function for an individual. All work is somewhat stressful and some industries and jobs roles are more stressful than others. It is important to know whether your workplace has a more or less normal level of stress or is decidedly more stressful than other employers, either in general or within your industry. The most straightforward way of assessing stress is to simply ask employees - typically as an element in an employee survey - how stressful their workplace is. This approach enables you to get a representative measurement of workplace stress and, assuming you have used a survey tool that has also been used to collect national and industry normative data on the same stress measure (s), also lets you see how the level of stress in your organization compares to others.

If your diagnostic test indicates that your organization is experiencing higher stress than it should be, the next step is determining the cause (s). Employee complaints or simple common sense may be enough to identity workplace stressors, or employee surveys or focus groups may be useful in pinpointing the problem areas. As the stressors are identified, it is useful to classify them by the degree to which they are internally vs. externally caused and whether they are temporary or ongoing. For example, a workplace culture that tolerates supervisors behaving in a disrespectful way toward employees is internal and ongoing, while stress coming from the organization being recently acquired by a larger firm is external (at least in terms of its source) but temporary. Classifying the sources of stress enables you to determine how to address them - providing a course of treatment for your organization.

Treating High Workplace Stress

The final stage is actually applying the treatment - developing actions, plans and policies to eliminate or lessen stressors. Internal sources of stress may be largely within your control and may suggest an obvious course of action - your organization can retrain those disrespectful supervisors or institute 360 degree reviews that make supervisors directly accountable for the way they behave toward employees. For external or temporary stressors your focus may be more on moderating the effects of the stressors, such as better communication to help employees understand and adapt to the transitions associated with the change in ownership that occurs during a merger.

The goal of a proactive and thoughtful approach to workplace stress is not to eliminate all sources of stress. It is to understand and manage that stress so that employees - the living, breathing heart of your organization - can do their best. The payoff in lower workplace stress is a more satisfied workplace, happier customers and higher productivity - just what the doctor ordered.


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