Workplace Stress Needs to Be Reined In
I was recently surfing through the wonderful world of the Internet, and discussions of “stress” seemed to be everywhere. For example, Medical News Today reported that during a recession, stress increases by 40 percent. An enormous number of Australian workers (81 percent) believe that it is getting more difficult to balance work and non-work demands, which is a major stressor. And in this day of struggling companies, it’s great to learn that mergers and acquisitions tend to send employee stress through the roof.
Now these may all seem like disparate, unrelated issues. After all, one of the sources is from the U.S., one is from Australia, and one is from Canada. But, the problem is growing, and employers and employees need to start paying attention to these issues.
Think about some of the major stressors workers are experiencing:
- Financial stress stemming from the economic downturn – and add to that the rising cost of gasoline.
- Continual job insecurity as employees are inundated with news accounts of downsizing and rumors inside their own organizations that layoffs may be coming soon (if they haven’t come already).
- Increased workloads that come from budget and staffing cuts – employees are being asked to produce more with fewer resources (oh, and don’t let quality suffer, either).
- Increased time at the office (to accomplish the increased workload), leading to friction between work and non-work schedules.
And yet, stress continues to remain one of those issues that falls to the back burner over and over again in most organizations. They often pay lip service to stress by offering “stress management programs” or “wellness activities” designed to make workers more resilient or help them develop effective coping skills. But the problem is that many organizations are developing workplace cultures that are antithetical to effective stress management and well-being. Telling someone they need to practice deep breathing or time management while continuing to foist more and more job responsibilities on them is a bit ludicrous. You send mixed messages when you tell people to make work-life balance a priority and then send them half a dozen emails after hours and expect a response when they are off the clock.
And this is the inconsistency that organizations and employees need to change. It isn’t enough to pay a high-priced consultant to come in and deliver a stress management program or to offer onsite fitness centers (especially when workers’ schedules are already overloaded).
Instead, if organizations truly want to get a handle on the negative consequences of workplace stress, they need to start by changing the culture of the organization. Conducting surveys of workers to identify the next flavor-of-the-month program is insufficient. Senior leaders and managers need to encourage candid dialogue with employees throughout the organization so they can improve the reality of day-to-day life within the organization. They need to give more thought to proactive approaches to reduce stress (such as redesigning work or implementing more effective tools), rather than focusing strictly on reactive approaches to stress. And most important, they need to spend time thinking through how their own behaviors are working against the messages they are trying to convey to employees.
If stress is going to be effectively addressed by an organization, the goal has to be to create a culture, structure, and strategy that are in alignment with that goal.
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