What to Do about Today’s Workplace Stress

stress at workAccording to recent studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48% of all people say stress has a negative impact on their lives. More than half of those (35%) cite their jobs as the most significant source of pressure. Costs to U.S. businesses for stress-related health care and missed work average $300 billion annually – a big number to say the least.

What is Job Stress

Job stresses are debilitating, possibly life-threatening physical and emotional reactions that arise when job requirements and expectations do not align with the capabilities, resources, and needs of the employee.

The concepts of job challenge and job stress are often confused. Challenge energizes and motivates workers to learn new skills and perform at ever-higher levels. Mastering job challenges induces feelings of satisfaction, content, resolve, and achievement. When job challenges become overwhelming demands, they become feelings of job stress.

Abhorrent conditions of job stress at Amazon, described in gruesome detail in The New York Times, include grown men crying at their desks, attempting to eject selfish managers by spamming the internal employee review tool, and being placed on performance improvement plans after returning to work from cancer treatment leaves of absence. CEO Jeff Bezos fired back a rebuttal disputing that Amazon is a “soulless, dystopian workplace.” Still, 38% would not recommend Amazon as a place to work.

Job stress is far and away the major source of stress for most American adults and it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. Scientific studies confirm that workers who perceive they are subjected to high demands but have little control over the demands are at increased physical, mental and emotional health risk.

Causes of Job Stress

Evidence exists for two prevailing instigators of job stress: working conditions and worker personalities. Exposure to stressful working conditions often prompts and influences job stress, and individual employee characteristics intervene to strengthen or diminish the influencers. Our research validates at least three working conditions that arouse workers’ stress: ineffective management style, poor peer and manager relationships, and excessive workload.

An example of ineffective management is micro-management. Micro-managers exhibit little, if any, trust and closely control work, even that of well-experienced and highly skilled workers who do not typically require significant oversight or supervision. This management style squelches creativity and individualistic thinking. Ineffective interpersonal relationships at work dominate when networking and social interactions are limited, thus prohibiting a social and collaborative culture. And finally, heavy workload, long working hours, ineffective processes, and a knee-jerk culture often stymy workers’ productivity, can create employee burnout, and usually preclude employees’ ability to effectively execute on work assignments. Management style, interpersonal relationships, and workload can significantly accelerate, or reduce, job stress.

How to Fix Job Stress

When Amazon employees were asked about fixing the apparent dysfunctional culture and severe proclamations of stress riddling their daily work lives, almost collectively they offered a single response to CEO Bezos and his senior leadership team: have empathy.

Leaders with emotional strength and intelligence seem to be a rare commodity — not only at Amazon but everywhere. The Brandon Hall Group 2015 State of Leadership Development Study identified “emotional strength” as an essential leadership competency with the second greatest mastery gap (behind only the competency called “coaching-in-the-moment”).

Essential Leadership Competencies with the Greatest Mastery Gaps

Competency Percentage Identifying Significant Gap
Coaching in the moment 43%
Emotional strength 36%
Agility 32%
Social intelligence 32%
Innovation 31%
Change management 31%
Team builder 29%

Source: 2015 Brandon Hall Group Leadership Development Study (n=242)

Emotional strength (sometimes referred to as EQ) is emotional resiliency and stability characterized by genuine caring and empowerment to others for the purpose of making better choices, particularly in challenging times. The good news is this: emotional strength is not an innate characteristic; it can be developed – well, at least in the case of willing leaders.

Tips for Developing Emotional Strength

Over the last 10 years or so, EQ has drawn significant interest from human resources and talent professionals throughout the world. It seems that it rises to the surface yet again in the context of the Amazon story last week as it relates to workplace stress. This year’s Brandon Hall Group leadership development study confirms that emotional intelligence is crucial in driving employee trust, loyalty, and commitment, yet seems to be overlooked when skills development solutions are designed.

EQ has six basic components:

  • Self-Awareness. Understanding one’s mood, emotions, drives, motivations and their impact on others
  • Self-Regulation. Ability to regulate one’s emotions and behaviors to ensure appropriate response, not reaction
  • Interpersonal Skills. Being empathetic, constructive, collaborative and establishing and maintaining mutually satisfying relationships
  • Coping with workplace demands by adjusting emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to changing conditions
  • Stress Tolerance. Withstanding adverse events and situations without acting inappropriately or overly demanding
  • Maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity, enjoying oneself and having fun

Here are five tips for helping leaders develop EQ:

  • Make connections. Accept help and support from those who have in mind the best interests of you and your organization
  • Avoid seeing challenges as insurmountable crises. Look beyond the present to best plan and make decisions for improving the future
  • Seek opportunities for self-discovery. Acknowledge your opportunities for growth and take action to productively close your skill gaps while doing more of the skills in which you excel
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook. Visualize the goal and limit the worry about your fears of getting there
  • Move towards your goal. Set realistic and achievable targets and solicit the assistance of your top talent to help you achieve the objective

So, the data is strong – emotional strength is a vital leadership skill integral to preventing and curbing a stressful work environment. And resultant action is clear – develop your leaders as masters of EQ. Development efforts are contingent upon how dysfunctional your culture is.

What is your point of view on the Amazon saga and workplace stress? Would your employees describe your working environment as stressful? What actions are critical in your workplace to move employees toward commitment and loyalty?

Until next time …

Laci Loew, VP and Principal Analyst,
Talent Management, Brandon Hall Group

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