How to Reduce Stress in the Workplace

As anyone who’s had a stressful job knows, the accumulated effects of too much stress can manifest in different ways, from long “I-deserve-this” lunches to non-stop Facebooking to playing home run derby with the office printer.

According to research conducted by ComPsych, a provider of employee assistance services, 34 percent of employees say they lose an hour or more per day of productive work time because of stress. That stress hour is often spent taking care of personal tasks such as finding child care, talking to coworkers, surfing the web or “zoning out,” said ComPsych spokesperson Jennifer Hudson.

How many hours is your company losing to stress?

Here’s a quick math problem:

(Take the Number of Your Organization’s Employees) X (.34) X (240 work days per year) = How Many Hours a Year of Productivity Your Company Loses to Stress

Of course goofing around at work at work isn’t the only way workers deal with stress. According to various surveys, stress causes people to play hooky from work and, even worse for you, quit their current jobs for less-stressful jobs. Stress also adds to health care costs and increases the number of on-the-job accidents. All of these negative outcomes cost organizations money.

The most common causes of job stress are bad relationships with supervisors and coworkers, high workload, poor work/life balance and job security, in roughly that order. These problems sound personal, but oftentimes they’re not. Workplace stress increases when employees face stiff demands but are given little control over their work, have excessive demands that do not match their ability and are not rewarded with compensation corresponding to their effort.

Management plays an outsized role in employee stress. In Gallup’s State of the American Workplace, CEO Jim Clifton wrote, “The single biggest decision you make in your job—bigger than all of the rest—is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits—nothing.”

The telltale signs of a stressed-out workplace include: workers taking more sick time, higher absenteeism rate, repeated complaints about the same individual or group to HR or management, more accidents and greater lethargy.

So how can HR pinpoint the causes of stress?

Anna Maravelas is the president of the conflict resolution firm Thera Rising and the author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress. To identify stressors within a company she conducts anonymous, hour-long, in-depth interviews with five to eight workers. She uses the data from these interviews to create surveys for the rest of the department or company. The information collected from these surveys helps companies locate their problems.

“I guarantee you if you ask the average person, they will have two to three hours of issues that they’re holding back,” Maravelas said.

Executives are often surprised to discover that what they thought was a clash of personalities or personality types was actually a problem with the way the company was structured.

For example, Maravelas worked with a company that employed architects and construction workers. The architects thought the construction workers were blockheads, and the construction workers thought the architects were dreamers who were out of touch with reality.

A classic personality conflict, right?

That was only a small part of it. Turns out the construction workers’ compensation was tied to bringing projects in on time and under budget while the architects benefitted from innovations that landed their work in architectural digests, which increased their chances of landing better gigs. The construction workers had no incentive to innovate, and the architects’ fortunes were not tied to finishing jobs quickly and under budget. It would have been shocking if these two groups didn’t eventually clash.

If you’re an HR manager, Maravelas says there are two ways to think about stress in your workplace. The first is to look at structural tension. Are everyone’s roles clear? Are there too many sources of direction? Are there clashing incentives?

The second is attitudinal and cultural. Does the company have a culture of appreciation? Are staff meetings being used to acknowledge contributions? Is good work being recognized?

Workplaces that make the effort to deal with stress tend to focus on the following areas: reducing stressors, implementing stress management programs and offering alternative work schedules, telecommuting, family-friendly benefits and health and fitness programs.

Specific tactics to reduce stressors include:

  • Giving employees more autonomy
  • Increased employee participation in decision-making
  • Training managers to communicate better

There’s good news for you and your company contained within those solutions. They all reduce employee stress without sacrificing productivity.

According to Gallup, the more hours per day Americans “get to use their strengths” to do what they do best, the less likely they are to report experiencing stress at work.

Reducing stress isn’t a matter of giving employees more time off during the year or longer lunch breaks. It’s a matter of organizing the workplace to make it friendlier to workers. This is easier said than done. I once spent four months convincing an operations manager to let my staff work from home 2-3 days a week. Management’s assumption was that workers goof off when they’re out of sight. And while some workers inevitably will, the company did not foresee that employees would value their jobs even more—and would be less likely to leave—if they received a great perk like telecommuting.

We implemented the telecommuting program, and we saw productivity in our department increase. When the company was purchased, and employees fled every other department, our team experienced no turnover. Staff loved working from home. As one staff member told me, “I drive an hour to work and an hour to get home. For a few days a week, I get two extra hours, and I use them to go to the gym.” So not only did she get to work in a low-stress environment for a few days a week, but she increased the amount of time she spent in a stress-busting activity such as exercise.

People want to do good work, and they want to do it in a low-stress environment.

Are you doing all you can to let them?

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