Workplace Stress-Five Easy Pieces for Leaders

A recent article’s headline caught my eye: High-stress workplaces equal lower productivity, say experts, this line in particular:
“Organisations are finding that work cultures focused towards high pressure and competition environments often lead to high staff turnover and ultimately poorer business results.”

Makes sense to me. The logical causal chain creates a reinforcing loop, more like a whirlpool of water swirling down the drain: stress leads to health issues > health issues trigger absenteeism and lowered productivity from those who work ill > absenteeism and lowered productivity cause increased stress levels from falling behind / catching up / pulling extra weight. All this leads to burn-out and people leaving. Or even worse, burn-outs staying and going into survival mode, a short-term coping strategy at best for the company and the burn-out alike.

The evidence is compelling and I could cram this whole article full of factoids. Stress is not only killing us, but it does incredible damage to organizational performance. Go here for more about Stress by the Numbers-Indicators and Impacts.

Deloitte’s third annual Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the New World of Work (a heavy hitter) reports that “…companies were struggling to decrease workplace stress, simplify business processes and reduce complexity….66 per cent of respondents believed their employees were “overwhelmed” by today’s work environment and 74 per cent cited workplace complexity as a significant problem.”

We see the enormity of the problem, yet we do very little to resolve the issues.

Stress Management Makes Good Business Sense

I was born and raised in the Midwest where we are born with the tribal knowledge that contented cows give more milk. Translated: when people are less stressed they perform better, produce more and better results. Beyond that, there are other good reasons to be mindful as a leader of stressors that impact your people. These five stressors are in your control, and there is little to no cost involved in doing something about them.

(ONE) “74 per cent cited workplace complexity as a significant problem (Deloitte)”
Systems and processes grow and morph over time when we’re not looking, through a continuous stream of small and seemingly insignificant modifications and tweaks. Tweaks add up. Stress can go through the ceiling from attempting to make over-designed, obsolete, ill-defined processes work. What better reason to analyze and improve the way the work gets done? Lean techniques, especially process mapping, can pay back in buckets by not only increasing throughput and productivity but by reducing stress. Especially if you involve those who know the work best.

(TWO) Confusion over purpose, goals, methods.
Believe it or not this is a genuine issue highlighted in numerous studies. It’s the lowest of low-hanging fruits and is low cost, high impact…for cripes’ sake, lead your people! Show them their target, make sure they understand the importance of hitting it, verify they have what it takes to get the work done: information, instructions, tools, time…all the right resources. Then let them perform and be there if they need you.

(THREE) Feeling unnecessary, unappreciated, alienated.
People need to know how they are doing, need to feel they are part of something that is worthwhile. We naturally assume no news is bad news. Or worse yet, we fall apart under a constant barrage of criticism without specific and sincere thank you’s to balance things out. We will pressure ourselves to do more and worry, worry, worry while we’re at it. Which leads to sub-par performance and even more criticism, pressure, worry.

We’re loyal to a fault, lovable mutts who’ll do anything to please their master in hopes of earning a treat or a pat on the head. We show unconditional love even when we get nothing but scolded for something the damn cat did. When we are conditioned long-term by nothing but negatives, if a rare reward comes along out of the blue it shocks and excites us so much that we may pee uncontrollably.

(sorry, you could have probably survived without the dog analogy even though it’s mostly true, at least up to the “pee” thing)

(FOUR) Forgetting to Feed and Water the Plants.
Most people want to be all they can be (certainly not all!). Most people get stressed out if they perceive they are going nowhere. Worse, they begin to question their worth. Give them opportunities to learn and grow!

(FIVE) Not Letting the Rabbits Run
Squirrels climb trees. Ducks take to water like…well, a duck taking to water. And rabbits run. A rabbit will swim if forced to, and will maybe survive. A duck can exert a short burst of respectable ground speed. But these animals are best suited to do what they do best, and they love doing it.

Poor fit is a major stressor. Unfortunately, a leader does not always have the luxury of following the natural order in making assignments. People are sometimes forced into a role that doesn’t fit them, and they may do a respectable job in the short run. But they are very likely to be miserable and will very probably burn out long-term. Leaders, find out what species of animals work for you and what their capabilities are. And find out what they love to do, which means you may have to talk with them and build a relationship (!). Assign and develop them accordingly, as much as possible. Strengths-based leadership makes a world of difference.

Engagement and Stress are Inversely Related!

All of the above stressors are in the hands of a leader. The reducer suggestions are actionable, and they all happen to be enablers of a high engagement work environment that supports performance excellence. So stress management is good business. Reducing workforce stress increases engagement levels, just as leveraging known enablers of engagement reduces stress, both of which make organizational sustainability more attainable. “Really?” you say…

“Sustainability” is more than recycling, reducing carbon footprints, being mindful of pollutants. Organizational sustainability is making sure the company itself lives a good, long life. And corporate social responsibility is more than an occasional cancer walkathon or read-with-kids program. Social responsibility is tending to the well-being of the community, starting with the community that is your workforce. It’s one big reinforcing loop:

-> engagement -> stress reduction -> sustainability ->

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