You and Stress
Is work stress inevitable? Something that professionals need to embrace and live with, like it, or not? How does an organization or management know if stress is affecting the well-being of its employees? In this article, Nancy Yeend shares a process management can employ to answer these and other questions.
A successful life in the financial world often is associated with stress.¬† Some may say, “So what is the big deal about stress?”¬† People working in situations associated with significant time demands, client satisfaction obligations, limited or compromised resources, and job insecurity often experience significant stress.¬† In addition, the weight of these pressures can produce a toxic work environment.
Putting Stress in Context
To understand the impact of stress on people working in high-pressure jobs, consider the significant medical consequences: diabetes, coronary disease, stroke, immune system disorders, and some forms of cancer. ¬†When people are under stress, their body produces the hormone, cortisol, which in turn impacts a person both mentally and physically. ¬†Stress not only affects a person’s health, but also may trigger unhealthy habits, such as over eating and alcoholism. ¬†Stress has additional consequences: lower productivity, higher absenteeism, and more job turnover.¬† According to one survey, over 80 percent of Americans feel stressed at work.¬† This is up significantly from the previous year.
The above factors combine to create a situation where the overall health and wellness of someone working in a stressful environment is negatively impacted.¬† The ultimate consequence to the employer is increased healthcare costs.¬† It is estimated that workplace stress added between $125 to $190 billion dollars a year to American healthcare costs with $48 billion directly attributed to high demands at work.
Some individuals cannot only survive, but may even appear to thrive in “pressure-cooker” settings. ¬†They are a minority.¬† Most individuals are negatively impacted, because they may have inadequate coping mechanisms or skills.¬† If a person does not have the requisite skills to diminish stress, then they typically resort to one of two responses: avoidance or aggression.¬† The avoider seems to drift through each day, performing at a low level, and experiences a sense of helplessness.¬† People who respond in an aggressive manner, lash out, are quick to blame others for any problems or project shortcomings, and definitely are not “team players”.
A two-pronged attack to reduce work related stress and improve coping skills is often the best medicine.¬† A quick way to determine if stress is the culprit impacting productivity, absenteeism, and the health of the workforce‚ÄĒtake the quick Stop-Look-Listen test.
- Stop and review absentee records. Do a significant number of employees use all of their available sick days each year? ¬†Are these people in the same department or work on the same team?
- Look at retention records. Is the organization experiencing a disproportionate amount of job turnover? ¬†What percentage of employees leave within 12 to 18 months?
- Listen to how people communicate with one another. Are conversations collegial or are there personal attacks, “back-biting”, and snide remarks?
When two of these situations exist, it usually indicates that individuals are working in a stressful environment.¬† If absenteeism, retention, and communication issues are identified, then a crisis may be looming.
Developing a Process
If employees experience stress, the next step‚ÄĒidentify causation.¬† Is it lack of resources or support services, insufficient training, incomplete or deficient policies and procedures, personnel or management issues, or something else? ¬†In order to modify the triggering circumstances, an assessment needs to be initiated.¬† Conducting an assessment using an audit or survey format, preferably by an independent or “outside” entity, helps to guard against internal, and sometimes incomplete or “self-serving” studies.
Dispute management audits can be administered relatively quickly using a short questionnaire and one-on-one interviews.¬† Conversations with representatives from Human Resources and the Legal Department may be necessary if an organization is experiencing a number of wrongful termination, harassment, or similar lawsuits.
Most surveys identify personality characteristics, management styles, lack of resources, and time pressures as the leading causes of conflict, which in turn generate the stress.¬† Once the assessment is completed, a plan can be developed.¬† There is not one plan that works in all situations; it depends on what factors are causing the stress.¬† There are, however, a few fundamental characteristics in all dispute management plans: review of policies and procedures, training, and one-on-one coaching.
For example, if absenteeism is an indicator of stress, then conducting a survey can help pinpoint some of the reasons people are using all of their sick time.¬† If a person is experiencing stress in the workplace and wakes up with a headache, they have little motivation to go to work.¬† They often rationalize, “I feel bad now, and going into that place will only make me feel worse!” ¬†It is interesting that these individuals tend to miss Mondays and Fridays, or get sick in the middle of a project or just before the final report is due.
If there is high turnover, especially in one department or at one site, then conducting a survey, holding group discussions, and completing individual interviews help pinpoint stress sources.¬† Interviews are confidential so employees will be more forthcoming with their responses.¬† It is not uncommon in these situations that significant personality or management styles trigger the stress.¬† If the job turnover is limited to essentially “new hires”, it is possible that policy and procedural issues or lack of specific training may also contribute to the stress.¬† No matter what the apparent reason for the turnover, exit interviews are a must.
Communication is another significant indicator there is potentially harmful stress in the workplace.¬† Little or no communication, incomplete communication, and destructive communication contribute to stress in the workplace.¬† When people feel powerless‚ÄĒtheir ideas are not valued or if they feel their efforts are not appreciated, these individuals often communicate less.¬† Holding on to information may be the only way they are able to gain “power” or to get attention.¬† Of course, there are those individuals who attempt to appear more powerful by tearing down coworkers, criticizing the efforts of their peers, and unfairly blaming others.
Once an assessment has identified the root causes of conflict, a specific plan can be designed.¬† A comprehensive dispute management plan will include recommendations, specific measureable goals, and identify a step-by-step process to change the dynamics that generate stress.¬† The person who conducted the assessment develops these plans.
Getting it Right
The final step is implementation.¬† During this phase, the company may either institute the recommended changes, or the plan designer may assist with integrating the changes.¬† The key to creating the change that will reduce the stress in the workplace is to focus on the measurable goals identified in the design.
Tracking changes in absenteeism rates, job turnover, and how employees communicate with one another is only the starting point.¬† The center of attention needs to expand if there is also a decline in requests for healthcare services.¬† Reducing the number of claims is not as critical as reducing the number of catastrophic claims generated by serious health related issues.
Historically, companies have added wellness plans to their Employee Assistance Programs (EAP); however, encouraging someone to diet or work out in the gym will not eliminate the stress source.¬† Encouraging wellness programs can help individuals cope and try to maintain a balanced lifestyle, but it is imperative that the majority of resources be focused on implementing the dispute management design.
Conducting a quick internal Stop-Look-Listen survey is the first step in determining if stress is impacting employee health as well as the corporate bottom line.¬† Second, instituting an independent assessment, followed by designing a comprehensive dispute management plan that is integrated into the organization, helps address the root causes of stress.¬† Third, monitoring the type and frequency of health service requests provides the most accurate data for verifying the impact of the design changes.¬† Management can do a great deal to address stress in the workplace by shifting their focus from healthcare programs to making changes in management and operations.¬† The impact of reducing stress in the workplace will be reflected in the reduction of healthcare costs.
 The American Institute of Stress found that 46 percent of work related stress comes from workload demands and another 28 percent from people issues.
 Christopher Bergland, Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy Number 1, Psychology Today, January 22, 2013.
Michael Blanding, National Health Costs Could Decrease if Managers Reduce Work Stress, published in Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School, January 26, 2015.¬† Most of the data presented in this article comes from the original research done by Joel Goth, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios.
 Shana Lynch’s February 23, 2015 article, Why Your Workplace Might Be Killing You, appeared in Insights, published by Stanford School of Business, summaries the results of over 220 studies on stress.¬† Joel Goh, Harvard School of Business, applied mathematical calculations to analyze the studies that link stress to illness.¬† Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos A. Zenios joined Goh in the extensive research project.
 Harris Interactive conducted Everest College‚Äôs third Work Stress Survey in 2013.
 The American Psychological Association estimates the cost to be closer to $300 billion.
 In 1936, Hans Selye, identified a distinction between “good” (eustress) and “bad” (distress) stress.¬† Good stress is eliminated when a person accomplishes a task.¬† Bad stress, especially over time, has a negative impact on health.
Nancy Neal Yeend is a dispute management specialist, mediator of business disputes, and educator. She is the co-founder of Pacific Coast Strategies in Portland, Oregon. Ms. Yeend can be reached at: (503) 803-6591 or e-mail to:. firstname.lastname@example.org.