Workers Are Stressed!

The past few weeks have been an economic and emotional roller coaster. The impact has been felt in workplaces everywhere. Watercooler conversations reflect the concerns and anxieties of most Americans — about job and financial security. Stress, bad moods and negative emotions are permeating the workplace, along with uncertainty about coping with it.

As an organizational development consultant and coach, I work with a wide variety of businesses, managers and frontline workers, helping individuals and organizations identify methods to more effectively deal with performance challenges. Emotions affect performance, and in these tough times fear, pain and apprehension are permeating from C-level suites on down.

Now more than ever, there is a need for organizations to proactively address workplace stress and emotions. The American Psychological Association claims that nearly two-thirds of people cite the economy as a source of significant stress. Another recent survey reports that 48 percent of all workers identify that stress makes it hard for them to perform well on the job. Workers losing sleep over financial or job worries come to work exhausted and with raw nerves, which puts them at risk for potentially dysfunctional behavior.

Most companies’ current “emotional fields” are loaded with anger, anxiety and stress. Like catching a cold virus, we are susceptible to “catching” others’ emotions. We naturally absorb the emotional states of those around us. As smiles and positive feelings are contagious, unfortunately so are the negative emotions.

When people are overloaded and hurting, they lose confidence and aren’t as effective dealing with the day-to-day frustrations and normal tasks. You may have noticed co-workers are on edge, distracted and have less patience these days (snapping at what a few months back might have been deemed minor frustrations). A domino effect can follow.

Extraordinary times like these call for extraordinary action. While most companies will focus and organize themselves around meeting targets and cutting back resources, far too few will do the critical work of paying attention to the emotional states of their employees.

Many companies in economic downturns self-implode not so much due to the market but more often because of their inability to deal effectively with the resulting internal challenges, stress, conflict, etc. Strong, wise and compassionate leadership will be critical to survival.

Workplace health and morale will depend on how companies cope with trying times, bad news and the resulting emotions. Workers will need sensitivity, understanding, empathy, support and transparent communication about what’s “really going on.” Management will need to rely on skillful delivery of clear direction while creating opportunities for employees to safely vent frustrations and fears.

Unfortunately, in much of corporate America, there is a strong bias against talking about feelings in the workplace. I couldn’t disagree more. We don’t check part of ourselves at the door entering work. Allowing people to express their feelings can be healthy for workplaces to work out core challenges, conflicts and issues. We often connect to each other, strengthen relationships and understand each other better through expression of feelings. With all the stress out there, a little understanding and empathy goes a long way.

I keep hearing politicians talk about putting emotions aside — as if that is really possible! We are emotional beings. Emotions aren’t simply good or bad, right or wrong — they just are. To suggest that we ignore them is simply bad advice.

Feelings are important for sound decision making; the problem is, many people either ignore them or are not conscious of them. Feelings have served humankind since the caveman days as a survival warning or radar system. For example, fear can alert you to an impending threat (like the robot in the 1960s classic “Lost in Space” did when he signaled, “Danger, Will Robinson,” for Will to take immediate action to protect himself).

Emotions inform us as to the importance and meaning of situations and interactions. Once you allow your feelings to inform you, the challenge is what you do next. It’s behavior that causes a problem for most people in workplaces. People who keep emotions bottled up or unexpressed are at risk for expressing them in dysfunctional ways.

By the way, if managing your behavior appropriately is a problem, you will need to get help learning new ways of coping or risk being out of a job.  I can help- call me: 360 682 5807.

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.