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I’m Stressed, and So Are My Employees. What Can I Do?

With organizational leaders and employees facing uncharted territory, new, and likely more work stressors, perhaps survival is the first port of call. With damage control the focus for so many, it’s understandable to want to return to predictable (if not always comfortable) working norms. Some won’t reach that height.

Two weeks ago I posted an article about how changing work arrangements forced upon us by Covid-19 could -- whenever some semblance of normality returns – help organizational leaders better design jobs for peak performance, reduced stress, and lower turnover. Well, if a year is a long time in business, and a week is in politics, then two weeks has seen near-cataclysmic change to many organizations and much of working life due to the coronavirus (whatever is behind it). With record numbers of people now working from home, there have been how to guides, people espousing the benefits of these new arrangements - while not making light of the tragedy that’s unfolding; and suggestions that remote work many become even more the norm than in recent years.

With organizational leaders and employees facing uncharted territory, new, and likely more work stressors, perhaps survival is the first port of call. With damage control the focus for so many, it’s understandable to want to return to predictable (if not always comfortable) working norms. Some won’t reach that height. However, potential disaster can be the wellspring of opportunity. Although the coronavirus is the most external of external factors – beyond the ballgame of industry, the economy, the upcoming election, and even the waters of international business and economic relations, there is a question inside the heart of every organization (and organizational leader) to be asked – and this time of forced disruption may actually be the best ever time to ask it: “Are our jobs designed the best they can possibly be to promote consistent peak performance, healthful functioning, retention of our best people, and our reputation in the talent war?

Job design is not an organizational buzzword. It’s the undertow of acute, or chronic work stress, and it’s effects on disengagement, poor performance, absenteeism, and unwanted turnover. Effects that cost the US economy over $300 billion a year (that might seem like a small number next to the stimulus package, but that’s nearly six billion dollars, on average, every week of every normal year, not to speak of other countries). It can also affect how applicants view you – and as we know, word travels. Conversely, job design is at the root of primary (or preventative) work stress interventions – intervening before the problems come. In a nutshell, primary stress interventions are strategies based on modifying the organization’s work conditions, tasks characteristics, systems, and structures. Some examples are:

· Restructuring organizational units

· Reorganizing lines of authority

· Changing decision making processes to be more inclusive of the relevant stakeholders

· Redesigning reward distributions to be more equitable

· Redesigning job tasks, job functions, job processes, and work schedules

· Adjusting job roles, and ensuring clarify of expectations

· Changes in climate, such as workplace support, intentionality about appreciation where appropriate, and constructive feedback

· Creating and implementing job enrichment programs to ensure that employees see the long-term game plan, and are challenged to progress – not just deal effectively with hindrances

Decades of research have shown primary interventions to be helpful, even pivotal, to better performance, more happy and committed employees who are less likely to leave (and to take their skills and know-how with them), and by default improve the bottom line. So why don’t we hear more about it? It’s actually straightforward: Primary interventions can be unpopular -- presumably even more so during chaotic times -- because they are hard. They take sincerity, effort to agree upon and to implement; they highlight what could have been done better, and possibly who’s at fault for that. There’s also a litany of tertiary work stress interventions designed to help people cope with the consequences of high or ongoing stress once the damage has already happened, such as exercises to do at your desk, and self-help books (as seen in airport book stores!); and secondary interventions, designed to change how individuals respond to stress - such as wellness programs, team building exercises, and stress management training. Many of these are good band-aids to excessive work stress, and perhaps all are easier to swallow than job design interventions (if the exec team is stressed, let’s all go to the ballgame). However, they are as useful as they are reactive – like a reactive market strategy.

So why am I bringing this up now, in a season of severe disruption with no known end in sight; a season of organizational leaders asking themselves “How many employees can I retain, and who should I keep?”, and so many employees wondering “Will I still be employed by this organization next week?”. It may seem misplaced, or even callous to do so. If so, I genuinely ask for your forgiveness. However, new patterns of work, of communication, and coordination are already arising. People are rising to the challenge – and maybe some of these new ways of working are better than before. Job design also has one more weapon up its sleeve – it’s highly actionable. Organizational leaders can’t control the economy, a natural disaster, or a worldwide health pandemic, but how jobs are designed can be a leader's art, science, or equation to be solved.

With that in mind, perhaps there’s never been a better time to ask:

· How were the job design modes I listed above working for you before Covid-19?

· How many of these are being disrupted (in some cases, quite violently so) by the current situation?

· How are your employees positively responding, and performing surprisingly well amidst the relative chaos of this?

And finally, remembering these times when things return to close-to normal:

· What would be the most thoughtful, appropriate, and mutually-advantageous ways to re-design jobs around how your employees have shown they can work, and would like to work; for peak performance, healthful functioning, retention, and victory in the talent war?

Ask them. There may be a lot more to it than simply working from home.

Marcus Fila, Ph.D., is an organizational analyst and industrial/organizational psychologist. He is an associate professor of management at Hope College; and a researcher, speaker, and consultant on work stress. Download my free Work Stress Self-Assessment Tool. Carpe Diem.

Photo by Razvan Chisu on Unsplash

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