Constant change, ever increasing stakeholder expectations, global competition and technology enabling us to be at work 24/7 all contribute to escalating demands on staff
Twenty first century organisations provide fertile ground for workplace stress. Optimal performance in these times depends on managers investing time and effort to understand and deal with the factors which contribute to stress on people in the workplaces for which they are accountable.
What is stress?
Stress is defined as: ‘a state of tension experienced by people facing extraordinary demands, constraints or opportunities’
Another way of looking at it is that stress arises from: ‘the discrepancy between the demands placed on a person and their skills and resources to deal with those demands’.
Clearly stress isn’t all bad. A degree of stress can be energising and motivating. For example, a person with perceived potential is asked to take on additional responsibilities or a person with a particular talent is asked to lead a particularly challenging assignment. Stress, in situations where staff take on new challenges, can increase people’s efforts, stimulate creativity and help people focus themselves and others on what needs to be achieved. ‘Good stress’ can increase job satisfaction and enhance self belief.
However when stress levels are too high and the tension too great, work quality suffers, undesirable behaviours such as absenteeism increase and conflicts escalate. The talented person in the example above might feel under too much stress to perform well if he or she has the skills to take on the new responsibilities but insufficient resources are allocated to the work.
One of the greatest challenges for managers is to ensure that people, including the manager her or himself, experience healthy levels of ‘constructive stress’ enabling them to perform optimally and avoid the ‘destructive stress’ which fuels distress.
The risks of stress
Destructive workplace stress is risky for the individual and for the organisation. For individuals it can lead to health problems such as hypertension, muscle aches, migraine headaches, ulcers, drug and alcohol abuse and depression. These effects have flow on consequences for colleagues whose workload increases due to the affected person’s reduced capacity or absence. The organisation in turn faces damage to its reputation as a responsible employer and risks litigation due to breaches of occupational health and safety legislation. Even when costly litigation is avoided, the bottom line cost of undue workplace stress can be enormous in terms of lost productivity. The causes of undue stress need to be understood and proactively managed.
Assessing workplace stressors
The factors that have an impact on people to cause stress are called ‘stressors’. A good starting point in a proactive approach to managing workplace stress is to assess your workplace against the six categories of potential stressors below. A useful next step would be to survey other staff members who work in the area.
Managers should not be alarmed if staff perceptions of the stressors differ from their own, even if radically. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers with this assessment. On the contrary, assessing stressors through multiple perspectives enables managers to gain a sense of the full spectrum of actual responses to stressors.
1. Factors intrinsic to the work
a. What aspects of the work itself could be stressful?
b. Are staff members feeling stressed about the work?
c. What measures are in place to reduce any stress?
2. Relationships in the workplace
a. How effective are relationships between team members?
b. And between team members and other teams or individuals?
c. Is conflict addressed constructively?
3. Roles and responsibilities
a. What is available to staff to help them be clear about their role and responsibilities?
b. What feedback and performance management processes are in place?
c. Does each staff member have the technical and personal skills and competencies to do the job?
4. Career development
a. How well do I understand team members’ career aspirations?
b. How clear am I on whether staff members feel they are progressing towards their career goals?
c. What professional development do my staff members need?
5. Culture and climate
a. Do staff members feel they have adequate input to the decisions that affect how they work?
b. Do staff members feel they have sufficient autonomy?
6. Life-work balance
a. Do staff members have a satisfying work-life balance?
b. What steps can staff take if they feel work is impinging too much on home life?
Differentiating workplace stress and personal stress
One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with stress in the workplace is knowing what to do when stressful personal situations impact on a person’s capacity and conduct at work. Life circumstances such as family and relationship difficulties, private trauma and mental health issues can all have direct adverse effects on a person’s workplace performance and indirect effects on colleagues of the affected person.
Knowing how to approach the workplace-related concerns without intruding on private matters can require sensitivity and skill on the part of the manager. Good relations between manager and staff member and well-honed self-awareness on the part of the manager are critical success factors if you are faced with such a situation.
Dave had been open with his manager about the challenges in his personal life. After separating from his wife he was now facing a protracted court case and costly legal fees associated with custody of his children. His manager, Sharon, had been supportive in approving leave at a time when the team was busiest and had agreed to additional external counselling support, paid for out of her team’s allocation with the firm’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider. Despite these measures, Dave was spending increasing amounts of time venting his anger about the legal system with colleagues. His personal productivity was at an all-time low and Sharon knew that other team members, although sympathetic to his circumstances, were feeling stressed by their intrusion into the workplace.
Rather than air her own frustrations at Dave’s apparent disregard for the extent to which she had supported him, Sharon talked the situation through with a trusted colleague including the fact that Dave’s situation was triggering memories of her own divorce some years back. Calmed by this debriefing process, Sharon drew on her good working relationship with Dave to have a heart to heart about the contribution he needed to make to lessening stress in the workplace.
Workplace stress of the destructive type should be seen as a risk to be treated proactively rather than as a set of circumstances to be dealt with if and when the need arises. Managers who ignore the potential for workplace stress until the results are staring them in the face, risk the costs of dealing with its consequences in crisis mode.
Familiarity with the factors which contribute to constructive and destructive stress as well as awareness of the levels of stress actually being experienced by people in the workplace will take managers a long way along the road to effective management of workplace stress.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and change through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative action learning approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.