Stress Management

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Stress Management

What It Means

In the workplace, stress management is a set of strategies or responses designed to reduce the causes and effects of stress on workers and the organization. Stress is a mental and physical response to the demands that are placed upon a person. Stress occurs in all facets of life, and a certain amount of it is normal. In the workplace, stress can help propel employees to meet deadlines, win new clients, solve problems, improve sales figures, and learn new skills. Stress on the job becomes a problem, however, when:

  • the requirements of the job exceed the employee’s capabilities,
  • workplace pressures are more than the worker can deal with,
  • job satisfaction is eroded by frustration and fatigue.

Long-term exposure to stress can trigger negative emotional and physiological responses, including depression, irritability, headaches, back pain, insomnia, stomach ulcers, a weakened immune system, and relationship problems with friends and family.

Stress can also have a profoundly negative effect on the health of a business or organization as a whole. Stress on workers often results in poor job performance; absenteeism (when workers do not show up to work); employee turnover (when workers leave the company); workplace accidents (or even violence); medical, legal, and insurance costs; and worker’s compensation awards (financial compensation for employees who are unable to work because of they were injured or disabled on the job). In 2004 it was estimated that job stress cost U.S. companies more than $300 billion annually. To avoid overstressed employees, many employers are seeking new and innovative ways to manage stress in the workplace.

When Did It Begin?

Stress existed in the workplace long before there was a word to describe it. The concept of stress as it applies to biology was “discovered” in the mid-1930s by a young Hungarian-born endocrinologist named Hans Selye (1907–82). While conducting research on rats at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Selye inadvertently hit upon what he called the General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.), a theory of how the body responds to “noxious agents,” any number of external influences or events, which the scientist later called “stress.” First published in the British journal Nature in 1936, Selye’s findings paved the way for a new field of medical research focused on the biology of stress and its effects.

Stress was not recognized as a legitimate problem in the workplace, however, until 1960, when a Michigan court granted worker’s compensation claims to an automotive factory worker who had suffered significant mental stress because of his inability to keep up with the pace of production on the assembly line. In an effort to keep from falling behind, the worker tried to assemble several pieces at once; this led to mistakes and harsh criticism from his supervisor. Finally, the worker had a mental breakdown. In the decades since that court decision, awareness of job stress as a social problem has grown. In 1992 a United Nations Report declared job stress “the twentieth-century disease.” Four years later the World Health Organization said stress had become a “worldwide epidemic.”

More Detailed Information

In order for employers to reduce stress levels in the workplace, the causes (called stressors) that most often lead to debilitating stress in the workplace must be understood. These include:

  • task-related factors, such as an excessive workload; performing tedious, repetitive, and seemingly meaningless tasks; working long shifts with few rest breaks; a lack of opportunity to take initiative or utilize skills;
  • issues of management style, such as unclear or conflicting expectations; lack of positive feedback; indirect communication; unwillingness to include employees in the decision-making process; failure to implement family-friendly policies;
  • inhospitable or unsafe workplace environments because of a lack of fresh air; noise; lack of windows; overcrowding; safety hazards, such as toxic chemicals, hot ovens, or heavy machinery; ergonomic problems related to repetitive tasks, such as sitting in the same position for continuous long hours, faulty computer keyboards, or an otherwise poorly designed work station;
  • difficult interpersonal relationships caused by unsupportive supervisors; uncooperative subordinates; a lack of teamwork; personality conflicts; office politics, gossip, or competition; sexual, racial, or other kinds of harassment;
  • issues of workplace change, such as the threat of layoff (losing one’s job because of budgetary constraints or a company reorganization); constant employee turnover; sudden technological changes; lack of opportunity for promotion.

Combating these stressors is a two-step process. First, employers must give their employees the tools and resources to manage stress. Many companies now offer stress-management courses, which help raise employees’ awareness about the sources of their stress. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) also provide a wealth of support to supervisors and employees in the form of counseling services, crisis intervention, management consultations, coaching for personal and professional development, health and wellness workshops, and other support services. Employers may also encourage employees to release stress by offering company gym memberships or onsite lunchtime yoga sessions.

While EAPs and other stress-management measures provide relief for the symptoms of stress, they do little to address the underlying causes of stress. Because stress-management initiatives focus on the worker who is experiencing the stress, rather than on the environment that is producing it, the benefits of these initiatives are likely to be superficial and short lived. If employers are serious about reducing stress in the workplace, experts agree that they must find ways to implement organizational change; that is, they must take steps to improve overall working conditions.

Research shows that common to almost all job stress is the feeling of having little control in one’s work life: employees have no say in how they manage their time and workload, or they feel unable to approach their supervisor with ideas, or they feel isolated from coworkers. To answer this problem, organizational change should focus on ways to give employees “ownership” of their own jobs and a sense of active involvement with the company. Employees will feel more secure in their positions if:

  • their roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, so they know exactly what is expected of them;
  • managers encourage initiative taking and independent problem solving;
  • managers share information that affects their job security.

Employees will feel more valued and respected if:

  • managers ask them for input about decisions that directly affect their jobs;
  • managers demonstrate some flexibility about scheduling in order to accommodate family needs;
  • managers give credit for a job well done.

Employees will more purposeful and effective in their work if:

  • they are not expected to meet unrealistic deadlines;
  • they are given opportunities for professional growth and career advancement;
  • managers promote social interaction, teamwork, and a sense of mutual interdependence among staff.

By fostering a working environment in which employees have a greater sense of agency, or control, in their work, managers not only reduce employee stress and its many negative consequences but also gain happier, more motivated, and more productive employees.

Recent Trends

Since the mid-1990s advances in technology have added many conveniences to the workplace. E-mail, instant messaging, and voicemail have quickened and increased the volume of communications. Cell phones have enabled employees to get a little bit of extra work done while sitting in traffic or at the airport. Laptop computers and PDAs, or handheld electronic planners, have made it possible for employees to take work home, on public transportation, on vacation, or anywhere.

These conveniences also have brought a significant increase in job stress for many workers, who report feeling pressure to be constantly available or “in touch” with the office and to respond immediately to memos, requests, and other work-related business. For many workers who feel compelled to take a business call in the middle of a family dinner or a child’s soccer game, there is no longer a clear divide between work and home. With frustrated spouses and disappointed children at home and demanding supervisors and coworkers at the office, many workers struggle with technology-related stress more than ever.