What is this type of stress?
Work related, or workplace stress is a psychological reaction an employee may experience when difficult and strenuous situations and complicated and compiling circumstances, experienced during their employment, begin to impact on their confidence, causing instability in their ability to cope. This can stem from several causes, such as from too many tasks and not enough time, a mismatch of abilities, workplace bullying, unforeseen eventualities, and the list goes on.
Just like everyone possesses different tolerances and ways they manage stress, the physical symptoms can also range from person to person, and can include nervousness, agitation, sweating, swearing, frustration, tension, etc. Further to this, and just to clarify, the workplace stress being addressed here refers to detrimental stress caused by and leading to employee dissatisfaction, and not the mild kind that people experience as a positive motivator. Whilst it can be hard to distinguish between the two, given how each person is unique, the detrimental stress can be identified by one simple trait: it costs businesses money in exchange for no gain whatsoever.
Costs of impact
Stress from employment is continuing to rise, year after year. In Australia, in 2008, Medibank Private estimated it to be costing the Australian economy approximately $14.81 billion a year, and, this year, 2012, it was announced on a local news radio show, 2day FM, that this figure has increased to approximately $30 billion!
These detrimental costs are a combined aggregate of a collection of factors that stem directly from workplace stress. These include lower productivity levels, increased absenteeism, compensation claims and high turn over rates. Obviously, this is a problem for both employees and employers alike, as everyone is affected. If one employee is stressed, it can flow on very easily to others, like a virus, as they try to compensate, reason with or comfort the original employee, lowering overall productivity.
Where does it come from?
As mentioned above, there are several factors that can be the original cause of stress, such as high demands, frustrating work conditions, safety risks, ergonomic concerns, unjust expectations, insecurities with future employment, office politics, workplace changes and mergers, etc.
Every workplace is different, and each comes with its own factors which can be difficult to isolate, however it is very important that managers never underestimate workplace stress in their organisations. It is clear from the figures above that it is a rising problem, which means that this issue is continuing to grow. Too frequently, employers and managers cannot identify the stress factors or symptoms within their departments, because they are either unsympathetic, the employee hides it due to embarrassment, or they are too far removed from the problem to acknowledge it.
Whilst it may be an unfortunately reality that some managers and employers don’t really view workplace stress as an issue big enough to cause a blip on their radar (which is the very reason of underestimation being addressed by this article), it is not to say that all of them are not concerned. Most of the time, identifying the problem can be very time consuming and complex, creating an invisible barrier to the issue itself.
Call to action
So, it is all well and good to discuss the costs and physical manifestations of workplace stress, but what can employers do?
Well, the very first thing to do is to not deny that it exists in all workplaces, and further to this, that workplace stress can exist in all different magnitudes: all of which are a problem that need addressing.
As blatantly obvious as that may seem, it is often questionable and always surprising how many employers remain oblivious, or worse, in denial about the potential problems in their very own teams; not from the lack of signals, but because they are under the impression that it won’t or doesn’t exist. Reality check: Remember, those billion dollar workplace stress related figures don’t just appear out of thin air.
Ensuring all employers and managers are aware that employee stress occurs, as a result of the very nature of business, is the first step to solving the issue. Don’t underestimate workplace stress! It is the large proverbial white elephant in the room.
It then comes down to drawing the line with what constitutes actual stress; as mentioned above, every person has a different threshold and coping strategy, so it can be difficult to assess what task or situation is stressful to one and not another. The best solution for this is to open communication channels. This has a two-fold benefit: the employees feel more comfort in raising and discussing these issues with the confidence that the problem will be addressed, and at the same time, employers can obtain first-hand feedback regarding the source and magnitude of stress in their workplace.
Putting things into practise
This knowledge, naturally, will only be useful should actions and conclusions come about, but, again, do not underestimate workplace stress. Employees will only continue to have confidence in the system if actions are taken, and the benefits of showing that management really do care are exponential.
For example, a simple action plan to change frustrating procedures that have been in place and never reviewed for over ten years, so as to alleviate the bottlenecks that are causing your employees to worry about everyday, could end up saving the employees significant amounts of time and energy, helping to solve stress related absenteeism and staff turn over. Understandably, this sounds very simple, but even more shocking is how realistic this kind of situation truly is. Underestimating how little triggers of stress can be alleviated by a simple change is the core issue here.
Take, for example, a situation I was involved in with a previous employer. Very long story short, the marketing and medical review teams were clashing over countless advertising material. The marketing team were producing print materials and the medical team were slowing down the process considerably, due to the sheer amount of content going through the system, as well as other interdepartmental gripes. Stress was running high: Management had a problem that wasn’t being solved, that was directly affecting productivity, frustrating all employees involved causing rifts within teams, and no way to solve it as it wasn’t being communicated in a healthy way (by this, I mean, it wasn’t being brought up in a constructive manner- it was more employees complaining via office politics).
To solve this, management decided to have both teams invited to a conference to vent out all issues, to get everything on the table, and to come up with a solution suggested together by both teams. I think that the entire problem (i.e.: the source of the frustration and stress within both teams) was rectified within a couple of hours, and ended up creating a much more fluid system. It really was that simple.
So the real issue is: underestimating the impact stress can have on businesses. The detrimental costs and numbers are clearly visible, but the lack of translation into realising it may be occurring in your own business, and even worse, the fact that most of the time, the problem is easily solved, is not as clear.