Employee Stress

Have you noticed Seattle workers seem more highly stressed than ever? It seems to me there is a perceptible increase in grouchiness, negative emotional reactivity and stress levels. This spring’s lousy weather coupled with the ongoing recession reality, global distress with the nightly barrage of horrific oil spill pictures seems to have combined for a perfect storm leaving everyone on edge.

Job stress specifically is on the rise. Recent surveys (Northwestern National Life) indicate that 25% of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. 75% of employees surveyed believe workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago (according to Princeton Survey Research Associates).

Workers are being asked to do more with less and cover task responsibilities for laid off co-workers and diminishing resources. Technically is advancing at warp speed, keeping most of us on a vertical learning curve just trying to keep up. 5 generations in the workplace keep us all challenged trying to communicate effectively with each other. Many workplaces operate at an unending fast pace where urgency has become the norm vs. the exception. The constant urgency keeps many in “fight or flight” mode day after day. Migraines and tension headaches are on the rise along with fatigue and illness. All this constant stress takes a tremendous toil on our physical and mental well-being. It’s no wonder many Americans dread going to work.

These are tough times for workers and leaders. No one is immune. So how can leaders keep up morale in these high stress times? I don’t have a magic bullet but I can offer some suggestions for leaders:

  • Manage by walking around. Don’t hide away in your office. Keep a pulse on what’s happening with your people. If you disappear or go silent, rumors will take over adding to the stress levels. When you do communicate, do so authentically and candidly. Treat your people like the adults they are and don’t withhold information.
  • Model work life balance. If you never leave the office, likely your staff will feel pressured to do the same. Avoid sending out emails to staff late at night! This is an unconscious message that they too should be tethered to their Blackberries and PDAs 24/7 which is unhealthy. Leaders and staff working at a rapid fire pace need to take time to rejuvenate. Taking care of the foundation is important. Exercise (it releases endorphins and burns off excess adrenaline and cortisol) and find ways to truly disconnect from the workplace.
  • Be careful about the emotional wake you leave with staff—your emotions are contagious. Your staff looks to you to see how you are reacting/responding to stress—if you get wigged out, expect them to follow you. Be conscious about how you show up emotionally to your people. As best you can, try to demonstrate a calm confident demeanor. If you find yourself highly anxious, develop methods to self soothe (I like belly breathing because your breath is always with you as a highly reliable strategy, besides it is proven to lower heart and respiratory rates).
  • Find a coach or trusted outside partner that you can let it all hang out with—someone you can safely vent to and be a sounding board. An objective perspective can often be invaluable during tough times. It’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Isolating yourself isn’t healthy.
  • Notice the emotional field of your team and workplace. Give people time to talk about their stress and emotions during team meetings. People find comfort in hearing from other team members. Your job during these venting times is to listen well and offer them sincere appreciation and understanding for what they are going through.
  • Engage hearts and minds. Involve and consult with your team before making decisions. Ask them their opinions. Allow them opportunities to get involved with creative problem solving.
  • During highly stressful times its more important than ever to reward and recognize. From verbal thank you’s to special public recognition, make a concentrated effort to demonstrate true appreciation. Bring in special treats for the team (consider a massage therapist or yoga instructor) to reward a job well done.

How to reduce job stress

WHILE JOB STRESS isn’t new, there is no doubt it’s on the rise. This workplace coach sees an alarming trend in frazzled, burned out and exhausted workers. The constant theme I hear: Everyone is increasingly challenged to do more with less.

According to a Northwestern National Life survey, one out of four workers view their jobs as the No. 1 stress in their lives (40 percent of workers surveyed said their job was “very or extremely stressful”). I help my clients find ways to decrease work stress factors that contribute to a long list of health concerns (migraines, anxiety attacks, sleep deprivation, etc.). Many report working 80-hour weeks and routinely facing morning inboxes with more than 200 new messages — with no end in sight.

The price is high: skyrocketing illness, friction between co-workers (“desk rage”) and lower productivity. Workers return home to their families short-tempered and depleted, often anxious about unfinished work, resulting in an inability to recharge.

There are many contributors to workplace stress: unrealistic deadlines, lack of supervisor support or understanding, feuding co-workers, misallocated or simply too few resources … the list goes on. Another big contributor is supervisors who fail to involve workers in decision-making that affects their daily work.

What causes workplaces to be in this state of constant overdrive? Increasing global competition, a tightening economy and excessive performance expectations all drive the ever-spinning hamster wheel. The information age is our blessing and our curse. Technology has made it easy to communicate and difficult to ever get away from the job. BlackBerrys, PDAs and laptops keep many workers tethered to their work, including on the well-deserved family vacation to Hawaii. If you find yourself sneaking out of the hotel room late at night, or slipping off the beach to compulsively check just “a few e-mails,” you might just have a problem. (If in doubt, ask your family.)

Many of my clients are at a critical juncture: continue down the same burnout path and suffer the inevitable consequences, or change.

If everyone in your company is stressed looking for efficiency or looking for cover, there may be a need to address the issue systemically. One thing experts and surveys agree on: Happy workers equate to productivity.

What companies can do:

  • Don’t expect your people to do it all. Unreasonable goals are counterproductive. They demotivate your work force and cause unnecessary frustration.
  • Watch for signs of depletion in your workers. Monitor workload and schedules to make sure they are in line with resources. Find ways to decrease the burdens by decreasing daily or excessive paperwork and approval processes. Consider outsourcing.
  • While many jobs have normal cycles of “crunch time” or heavier workloads, don’t allow this to become a yearlong constant. Appropriately acknowledge and compensate people for extra work (additional time off, bonuses, etc). Work exceptionally hard during these times to let your employees know they are valued and appreciated.
  • Survey employees and their perceptions of job conditions, stress and workplace satisfaction. Supervisors should consult with employees around decisions that affect their day-to-day work lives and responsibilities; giving them more control and flexibility over their work can yield great returns (like keeping talent!).
  • Provide opportunities for workers to socialize, have fun and blow off steam.

What workers can do:

  • If you are the poster child for workplace exhaustion and stress, stand up for your rights! Be professionally assertive and express your feelings to supervisors who make unreasonable demands. Communicate when you don’t have the time or resources necessary to accomplish the request. Ask for prioritization. If the boss demands it “has to be done,” counter with, “What piece of my other workload can I give up to get this done?”
  • Don’t inundate co-workers with e-mail overload. Clarify critical e-mails from noncritical ones. Note when it’s an FYI only or action required.
  • Avoid being your own worst “stress enemy” by setting unrealistic expectations on yourself. No, you really can’t do it all, and trying to do so more often than not means you (and your loved ones) pay a very high price. Consider establishing a great job or good enough bar vs. a standard of perfection.
  • Make yourself a priority. You are the foundation on which all else hinges. Humans need to unplug to recharge. Plan unplugged time and activities to refuel — a walk, meditation, massage or yoga class and real vacations.

I am not suggesting it isn’t important to work hard. What I am suggesting is that it’s important to have balance and to work smarter vs. solely working harder.