The High Cost of Stress in the Workplace
“Office politics. Dictatorial bosses. Coworkers’ emotions bouncing up and down and sideways. Hi-tech tools that keep changing and updating. An uncertain economy and a volatile job market. Escalating levels of expectation. Loss of direction. Too much to do. Too little time. Not enough sleep.” (1)
The constant pressure – to do more, better, faster, cheaper – are impacting the workforce, managers and employees alike, in many negative ways. The resulting stress is affecting their well-being and their performance.
As Huffington (2014) has shown, stress and burnout are increasing at an alarming rate and creating havoc worldwide. Survey after survey in France, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, the U.S.A, China and in many other countries have revealed the devastating effects on worker morale, health and productivity. Women, in their struggle to find a balance between care for their families and career ambitions, are particularly hard hit.
The costs to companies, individuals and society are soaring and reaching billions of dollars every year in developed as well as emerging economies: absenteeism, presenteeism, lack of engagement and innovation, loss of talents, massive health problems…are all taking their toll.
It has become urgent to tackle this crisis and find solutions for the benefit of all.
A multi-layered approach
To move forward, it is necessary to address the problem at three levels:
1. Company Management
First of all, no doubt, analysis and reflection at the policy level is indispensable. How serious is the problem? Who is affected and in what way? How can the working conditions be improved in order to reduce stress? The onus is above all on the company to do all it can to alleviate the pressures as much as possible.
2. Management Practices
Poorly trained and toxic managers contribute to the malaise. Micromanagement, lack of recognition and respect, as well as insufficient managerial and leadership skills – poor communication, not enough delegation, lack of emotional intelligence, inadequate change management – are among the deficiencies revealed by numerous studies.
Clearly, management training and development are no longer a luxury and could significantly improve the situation.
Let’s not forget that managers are typically chosen on the strength of their technical skills, their expertise in a particular professional field. Most often, the best salesperson becomes the sales supervisor, the outstanding auditor is appointed team leader, the technician with the highest level of technical competence is designed head technician and so forth.
The problem with this widespread practice is that the novice managers frequently find themselves ill prepared for their new position. They quickly discover that managing a team, whatever its size, requires an entirely different skill set: Recruiting, guiding, evaluating and coaching employees, team building, delegating, managing conflicts and many others.
3. Individual Responsibility
Stress is inevitable and will no doubt increase further in today’s work place. Employees at all levels, therefore, have every interest to take charge of their own lives and learn strategies and practical ways to keep their stress manageable, as well as trying to become more resilient.
A great number of techniques can serve this purpose. To be useful, they must be adapted to our needs, our abilities and our values.
Understanding and Coping with our Stress
Stress occurs when a person judges his or her available resources insufficient to deal adequately with internal or external pressures. So we should recognize that not every person’s response is the same to internal or external pressures. For example, confronted with a new task or a new project, one person may feel stimulated and elated at this new opportunity to grow and learn, whereas another may feel anxious or threatened by the necessity to break out of his or her routine.
It follows therefore that we need to analyze and determine on a personal level which situations are stressful for us. In what circumstances, with whom, when, do we feel under pressure? How frequently do these events occur and what are our emotional responses to them? Is it anger, anxiety, frustration, depression or feeling overwhelmed?
As high and chronic stress may seriously affect our health and result in burnout, it is imperative to address it and, if necessary, seek professional help.
Stress reduction techniques
We can focus on solutions to problems which cause the stress (better time management; asserting ourselves and learning how to say no; more effective working tools and infrastructure…) or aim at improving our emotional reactions (taking a step back and reassessing the situation; expressing our feelings; getting support from people close to us; deep breathing and relaxing…).
Recent scientific contributions have opened up many new pathways to prevent stress and to greater well-being and happiness at work (cf. Ben-Shahar, 2007; Csikszentmihaly, 2008; Huffington, 2014; Seligman, 2012).
Constructive approaches include a number of dimensions: Our lifestyle (work-life balance, not staying connected 24/7…); daily hygiene (healthy food, regular exercise, engaging in hobbies and personal interests…); sufficient sleep and rest; mindfulness, meditation, focusing on our inner life and spiritual values; nurturing our relationships (family, friends, colleagues…) and networking; efficient work methods (good planning, clear objectives and priorities…); staying on top of our career opportunities, as well as self development.
Productivity and Well-Being
As more and more research is showing (cf. Achor, 2010; Greenberg & Maymin, 2014; Huffington, 2014), companies – by reducing pressures in the workplace and improving the well-being of their workforce – have succeeded in reducing costs and increasing productivity. The bottom line which emerges is that investing in improving workers’ health and satisfaction produces better business results. Reconciling performance and well-being pays off!
Attractive working conditions and empowering managerial practices help corporations to attract talents and retain them (cf. international surveys by Great Place to Work); result in better customer care; more innovation; greater trust; improved work climate and cooperation; less conflict, health problems and absenteeism, as well as more engagement and pleasure at work.
Advancing well-being in the workplace will depend foremost on improved working conditions and better managerial practices.
However, it is incumbent on all of us to take charge of our lives on a personal level and learn ways of reducing our stress.
In view of the epidemic proportions that stress has reached in our lives, Huffington (2014) proposes to redefine professional success no longer only in terms of the commonly used criteria money and power, but to introduce well-being as a critical third metric. In order to prosper and thrive, she points to mounting research evidence of the need for more compassion, generosity and slowing down, ceasing to permanently staying connected to our i-phones and computers and focusing more on our passions, reconnecting with our inner lives, our values and essential needs, in short, radically reformulating our priorities.
The fact that diminishing stress by improving working conditions and managerial practices, not only reduces human suffering, but also increases the productivity and benefits of companies, should spur us on to move in this direction.
Achor S. (2010), The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Crown Business, NY.
Ben-Shahar T. (2007), Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, McGraw-Hill, NY.
Csikszentmihaly M. (2008), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, NY.
Greenberg M., Maymin S. (2013), Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business, with a Foreword from Tom Rath, McGraw-Hill, NY.
Huffington A. (2014), Thrive : The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Harmony, NY.
Marcel Lucien Goldschmid, PhD, Director of MTC