Work stress is undeniably a “thing”, and most people admit to feeling it. When I tell people about my research on it, reactions are commonly,“Oh, I’ll be one of your participants!”, or“That’s applicable to pretty much everyone, then”.
Not all work stress is bad. In fact, some is necessary to function well, and perform. There’s a term for this: eustress. We aren’t challenged or contented if things come too easily, and we won’t perform to our best. However, excessive work stress has been called a pandemic in modern times. It’s responsible for $300 Billion (with a “B”) of losses to the US economy alone in poor productivity, sickness, absenteeism, an unwanted employee turnover. No organization is immune from this. So why in this age of abundant information, training courses, and “How To’s” does dealing with work stress still go almost completely under the radar?
Here are a few reasons.
Work Stress is Multifaceted. Much of it boils down to appraising the demands made by the workplace as exceeding one’s ability to cope. However, there’s a lot of elements to this. Who are the demands coming from? How well defined they are? How appropriate are they for the role, or position? Do they professionally challenge you, or just present barriers to goal accomplishment? Do you have discretion over how the work is done, and support from coworkers, supervisor(s), and the organization to help meet these demands? Also, problems in one area can throw others out of balance - it’s like a rubix cube.
It has Many Causes. External disruptions affect profitability, perceptions of opportunity, and job security (how is the coronavirus affecting your industry?). Non-work life can affect work stress. Companies have varying degrees of control over these. But inside the company it’s a whole other game. Most research is on how jobs are designed around demands and resources of control and support, per the previous point. This is a huge question, but can get lost in others, such as do employees believe the organization is “on our side”? Are remuneration and benefits competitive, or do people make hard trade-offs to work there? How bureaucratic or political is the work environment? Is the culture toxic, or one employees can thrive in?
No-One Wants to “Own” the Dire Consequences. Acute (very high), or chronic (ongoing) work stress is strongly linked to poor performance, job dissatisfaction, the desire to leave, and actually leaving. Unwanted turnover costs organizations approximately 93-200% of that person’s salary to replace them with an equally or better performing employee. Along the way, organizations may suffer from absenteeism, and counterproductive work behaviors (such as negative gossip, and sabotage). Overly stressed employees may become disengaged, or depersonalized from their work, suffer from emotional exhaustion, even depressive symptoms; and a host of physiological symptoms. All, ultimately, at cost to the organization. But who is responsible?
Responsibility is Mutual, So Blame Shifts. Stressed employees tend to blame their organization. However, there’s a difference between knowing what constitutes reasonable expectations for a given role or position, experiencing something different, and being stressed - and not knowing, or simply lacking the essential skills or hardiness to perform the role anywhere. Also, stress goes up in an organization, not just down. What are we doing to protect our leaders, and to help them protect us? Conversely, organizational leaders can believe that the right employees will tough it out, no matter what. But what happens if there’s an external shock which upsets the apple cart, internal political wrangling which cascades through organizational layers; or a sudden change, such as when an outgoing leader is replaced by someone possessing very different characteristics, beliefs, and methods? Whose fault it is within the organization when someone valued leaves? It's not always clear.
I’ve headhunted accountancy partners in the Big Four, and senior IT and Engineering professionals – highly competent people at the pinnacle of their field making significant sums of money. On paper they were a perfect fit for their role, and their tenacity and ability was almost never in doubt. However, many were hugely stressed, and no-one was helping, or even acknowledging it. Understanding the root causes of their work stress and offering a solution -- not simply more money -- is usually what moved them. This led me to ask “At what point, or level, can excessive work stress not simply be about having ‘the wrong employees’?” Responsibility for work stress is an employee-organization teeter-totter (or see-saw, for the Brits).
So What do We Need to Begin?
Two things. First, a mindset that work stress is not to be avoided. The right employees won’t take you for a ride, or think you are a bad place to work for if you address it - on the contrary, their respect for you will skyrocket. One of the greatest fallacies of modern organizational life is the tug-of-war between company profits and employee well-being. They both face the same way, and everyone genuinely can win. Employees are more likely to stay and prosper, and the organization will save enormous sums on turnover, gain from having higher performing employees, and in the talent war be known as an employer of choice.
Second, find a starting point to help cut through the complexity. Try a department, or group of positions with poor outcomes or higher than expected turnover. If you prefer, start with a single employee who with whom you can have an honest conversation. If you are an employee, write down what your points of stress are, and what the organization could do to help you succeed in your position. That’s a mark of honesty and dedication, not whining. Whether you’re a leader or employee, I encourage you to face work stress head-on, and reap the benefits.
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 his free Work Stress Self-Assessment Tool.