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.

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.