by Bette Price

   Workforce stress has become the most common and costly problem facing management today. So common in fact, that stress is now being found to exist at all levels of work. Because of your position as a manager, it is critical for you to identify not only the warning signs of stress in your people, but to identify your own level of stress. To ignore either will diminish productivity, rob your bottom line and diminish your competitive edge.
   The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Federal agency responsible for conducting research and making preventative recommendations for work-related illness and injury, reports these startling findings:

  • One-quarter of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
  • Three-fourths of employees believe there is more stress on the job than a generation ago.
  • Forty percent of workers report that their job is "very or extremely stressful."

   Add this to medical research that says that 50 to 80% of all disease is stress-related in its origin and you will begin to realize just what stress is costing your organization.
   American industry overall spends more than $26 billion each year on medical bills and disability payments. Executives alone account for $10 billion in lost income because of lost workdays, hospitalization and early death caused by stress. The American Institute of Stress reports that 75 to 90% of all doctor visits are related to stress. On-the-job accidents are 60 to 80% stress related and cost American business $26 billion in disability claims. Forty percent of all staff turnover is due to workplace stress and 4% of all work hours lost are caused by absenteeism which wastes millions of dollars annually, say nothing for health conditions that result from occupational stress which are compounded by the cost of lost work time.
   So, what's causing all this stress? One way to define job stress is to identify it as a harmful physical and emotional response that comes about when the requirements of one's job fail to match the individual's capabilities or resources. Workplace conditions that cause stress should not be confused with challenging your employees. Challenge can energize people psychologically and physically, thereby motivating them to learn new skills which when achieved, provide job satisfaction. Stress, on the other hand, from job demands that cannot be met, result in exhaustion, an eroded sense of satisfaction and prime the pump for illness, injury, and job failure.

What's Causing Job Stress?

   Stress most commonly results from two elements-the interactions of employees with other workers and the workplace environment. There is some debate among professionals about individual characteristics such as personality and behavior style as it relates to predicting whether certain work environments will result in stress for one person versus another. However, scientific evidence suggests that certain work environments are stressful to most people. Excessive workloads and unrealistic and conflicting expectations play an integral role in causing job stress. Take a look at some of the most common job conditions that can lead to stress:

  • How required tasks are designed by management.
    Heavy workloads with infrequent rest time coupled with long hectic work hours with tasks that have little inherent meaning fail to utilize the employees skills and knowledge, thus they provide the individual with little sense of control.
  • Individual management style is a major factor.
    When employees are left out of decision-making and there is poor communication from their leader, employees feel little value.
  • Interpersonal Relationships.
    A poor social environment and lack of support from supervisors and coworkers demoralizes employees.
  • Work Roles.
    Too many hats to wear or unrealistic and conflicting job expectations causes mistrust, fear and concern.
  • Career Concerns.
    Rapid changes for which employees have been ill-prepared or lack of opportunity for job growth cause insecurity and fear.
What's a good manager to do?

   Recent studies by many health organizations suggest that when you develop and deploy policies that benefit employees health, you also benefit your bottom line. A healthy organization experiences lower rates of illness, injury and absenteeism. NIOSH research has identified the following organizational characteristics as being associated with both healthy, low-stress work and high levels of productivity:

  • Recognition of employees for good work performance.
    This doesn't have to be major kinds of recognition. Tickets to the movie or a dinner out goes a long way. A handwritten note from you, the manager, means even more.
  • Opportunities for career development.
    Reward your future leaders with special training programs or include them in decision-making meetings in which they would not normally be included. Find ways to let them know you are grooming them for a future career move. � An organizational culture that values the individual worker. A mission statement that hangs on the wall but never becomes a living document from which you truly operate, doesn't get the job done. Live the mission.
  • Management actions that are consistent with organizational values.
    Actions speak louder than words. Be a leader that people can trust. Be consistent and dependable and be willing to admit when you make the mistake. Also, think about these things as you set an example of a leader who truly wants his/her people to benefit from working in a stress-free environment.
  • Ensure that everyone's workload is in line with their respective capabilities and resources.
  • Design tasks to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for employees to use their strongest skills.
  • Be sure to clearly define each employee's role and responsibility.
  • Take risks and find ways for employees to participate in decisions and actions that affect their respective jobs.
  • Take time to ensure strong communications-diminish uncertainty about future employment prospects and career development.
  • Create opportunities for social interaction among employees.
  • Establish flexible work schedules that are compatible with an individual's unique demands and responsibilities outside the job.

   There are no perfect guidelines for reducing stress in the workplace, but the suggestions provided here will go a long way toward demonstrating your sincerity to your employees, and in the long run, you'll likely realize that you feel less stressed yourself.