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Work Stress is a Transaction, and Requires a System

Updated: Jan 3

So much of organizational life today is about systems. When employees experience a season of high stress, there’s often no system to help them.

So much of organizational life today is about systems. From customer relationship management (CRM), to a strong emphasis on teamwork; training employees to learn “how we do things around here”; to cultivating an organizational identity which guides the framing of decisions around strategy, production, and marketing. Organizational culture has never been more central to setting, and understanding the collective mindset of a company and its people.

The benefits to systems thinking are well espoused – after all, if we all move in the same direction, isn’t it easier to understand each other, and to get things done? You would generally be lauded for thinking so. When times are good we can all pat each other on the back. When times are challenging, systems thinking can pull people together to form a collective mindset that can help see the team, or organization through to the other side of whatever they are facing. In this respect, systems can be essential to the very survival of the organization, let alone its ongoing well-being.

When employees experience a season of high stress, or if stress remains elevated for an extended period, there’s often no system to help them. Some organizations will allow for personal days, some will hire an internal counselor, some will provide perks, such as ball game tickets or out-of-office days – but these patch over the problem, without addressing root causes. The systems that are all-present elsewhere – through selection, socialization/onboarding, and training -- can be notably absent when it comes to work stress. The costs of this to the organization and employee are tangible, through lost productivity, absenteeism, burnout, counterproductive work behavior, and unwanted turnover. So why can this happen even in companies which pride putting employees first, and on conscientious leadership?

An overemphasis on individuals. Highly individualistic work cultures can overemphasize the role of the individual in managing stressful events and circumstances. Individual differences such as personality traits of course play a role. However, even in studies that show the role of individual differences – for example, type A personalities being more pre-disposed to high or ongoing stress and people who possess traits of hardiness or optimism as better copers; the attention remains on the individual’s inherent characteristics as an indicator of susceptibility to stress.

Ignoring the role of the organization. Stress in organizations occurs within complex, dynamic environments where the demands made of people, and resources available to cope with them can change. The organization can be a conduit to far broader changes – just look at the effects of the economic crisis a dozen years ago on work and stress, or current challenges around covid-19. However, internal changes – such as a shift in culture, changing role boundaries, or new leadership can affect how well incumbents perceive fit with the organization. In either sense, experiencing, and handling stress is a two-way street. Stress is a transaction between the individual and their work environment, and it is that transaction, not either side at the exclusion of the other, which should be considered.

A focus on band-aids, not root causes of stress. Without a transactional perspective, interventions to manage stress are unlikely to address both sides of the person-environment equation. Many popular interventions, such as muscle-relaxation techniques, meditation, stress management training - and the golden goose of the current age: wellness programs - focus exclusively on the individual. These can be effective as part of a wider, transactional solution that includes interventions around job design and work environment issues – something that could help reduce burnout and unwanted turnover on a longer-term basis; but without this, their role is limited to changing how individuals respond to work stressors without addressing the company side of the stress transaction.

A desire for order rather than fundamental change. Overlooking the stress transaction in favor of individual-focused interventions (if any at all), indicates something else about work culture: a strong preference for order rather than change. For all the modern management techniques now so prevalent, regulation which emphasizes stability, integration, and consensus often trumps structural conflict resolution, and transformation. This is understandable – after all, there’s always pressure to get something done immediately. However, we want people to fit seamlessly, while sending a message that someone’s stress is solely attributable to their traits and behavioral characteristics; and not the interaction of those with our processes. The responsibility for stress is solely the employee’s problem, and not a problem shared with the organization whose systems chose them.

Again, why does this happen? Corporate conscientiousness may never have been higher than today. Many leaders understand these issues, and have personal values – often espoused by those of the organization – towards improving them. On some level, there is a desire for systems to help address employee stress and well-being. However, the absence of transactional thinking regarding stress is a knot in even many well-meaning organizations, which left untied prevents a systems approach. Even with organizational leader buy-in – and certainly without it – there is a fear of loss of power by frontline supervisors in admitting to, and dealing with the root causes of the other side of the stress transaction: job design parameters and work environment characteristics. This is born out of a fear of increased workload on the part of supervisors, and a lack of organizational resources and support to supervisors to deal with employee stress while meeting demands.

One suggestion to untie this knot is to go in reverse: By offering supervisors resources to deal with the employee stress transaction, supervisor’s fear of increased workload is likely to reduce. This may abate or eliminate supervisor’s perceived loss of power (it may actually be empowering!), because the support will be obvious, not absent or implied without tangibility. Employees have been handpicked, socialized and onboarded, and trained by their organizations – at great expense - through systems. Let’s ensure they have one when the going gets tough.

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.

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