We must be aware of the increasing problem of excessive and unhealthy stress in our society today. According to CBS Evening News’ annual survey, about 50 percent of people—half of us—feel we are somewhat to extremely stressed in our work. That could mean half the people in our company. We need to realize that undue and unhealthy stress can wear us down, and even be debilitating. As leaders, we are responsible to and for our people. Therefore, it is appropriate and necessary that we be attuned to the epidemic that unhealthy stress is becoming.
A certain level of stress can be healthy. For example, a due date for a project may prompt us to prepare early, and an upcoming presentation or speech may lead us to practice well ahead of time.
However, most stress is not healthy. It can be a heavy burden we carry and can, for some, lead to unhappiness, depression, anxiety, and even despair. We all have difficulties that we deal with, each and every one of us. Some are professional, some are personal. Some of these issues may weigh heavily on us. Stressful circumstances definitely can have adverse effects on our life—and our work.
A major contributor to our stress is the hyper-busy world we live in. We seem to have precious little time to relax, to read, to listen to music we love, to have unhurried conversations with our loved ones and friends, and to get ample sleep. We are always on the go, trying to excel at work, and responding to the endless flow of information coming at us via the Internet, emails, and texts, while also keeping up with our families and other outside responsibilities.
Stress may be caused by our work. A great many people have more work than can be done in a workday. And there is often constant pressure to do more.
Stress can be compounded when we feel taken for granted and not appreciated at work, or when we feel we are not heard, trusted, or empowered. Or maybe we have a manager who is self-absorbed, insecure, unhelpful, or a command and control or micro-manager.
A great deal of stress may come from a manager who perhaps is also overworked, or who fails to understand her or his responsibilities to and for her or his people. Perhaps these managers are overlooking their responsibility for the development and success of the people with whom they work and/or perhaps they are poor communicators.
Stress certainly comes from managers failing to not address problems and problem employees, allowing issues to fester.
At times, work stress comes from unrealistic goals that are set from the top down. Stretch goals are fine, but they must be reasonable and based on an understanding that resources are available to support our people. Ideally, senior leadership should seek input for these goals from the people doing the work of our companies.
Bureaucratic companies and top down directives can certainly heighten stress for their people in the field because of numerous seemingly unnecessary reports, layers of approval processes, and people not feeling trusted and empowered.
Stress can also come from our own personal lives—perhaps a troubling family member, an abusive relationship, excessive debt or other financial pressures, children who are struggling, health issues, and many other all too common issues. As leaders, let’s try our best to be helpful. Let’s walk the halls and connect with our people. If we sense that someone is under undue stress, perhaps we can through two-way conversations be helpful.
Some people may want to discuss the stress they feel while others may not—and both cases are understandable. We should not pry. If a person wishes to share, however, let’s do our best to be there for them and help. Very often just listening, in and of itself, can be helpful.
We must absolutely assure everyone that if they talk about their stress and allow themselves to be vulnerable with us, such information is private and confidential, and will not be shared or recorded in their file or used for consideration of promotion, compensation, or any other decisions.
Another form of stress in the workplace comes from experiencing uncivil behavior from others in the company. According to Georgetown management professor, author, and researcher Christine Porath, 98 percent of workers have experienced uncivil behavior at work. Half said they were treated rudely at least once a week! What toll do these experiences have on the individual and our companies? Porath’s research found that among workers who were on the receiving end of incivility:
- 38 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work
- 66 percent said that their performance declined
- 78 percent said that their commitment to the organization declined
- 12 percent said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment
- 25 percent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers
These results are staggering! Stress caused by fellow coworkers due to uncivil behavior costs our people and our companies dearly! We cannot afford to allow stress and incivility to go unaddressed.
In an article Porath and her co-researcher and author, Christine Pearson, published in the Harvard Business Review, stated: According to a study conducted by Accountemps and reported in Fortune, managers and executives at Fortune 1,000 firms spend 13% percent of their work time—the equivalent of seven weeks a year— mending employee relationships and otherwise dealing with the aftermath of incivility.
Cisco reported that incivility cost them $12 million a year. This realization led to the creation of Cisco’s global workplace civility program.
If we learn that someone’s stress is caused by their work, we should certainly address the issue. Does he or she have too much work, unrealistic goals and expectations, and/or a manager whose leadership skills are lacking? Are other team members causing stress with their uncivil behavior and attitude? Let’s not allow these issues to continue. Let’s address problems promptly and hold those who are the cause, accountable. This is our responsibility as a leader.
Much of the stress our people experience could be personal, and there are actions we can take to be helpful. We can let them know that we care and we can ask about workable solutions to help reduce their stress. This could mean allowing some flexibility in work hours, or allowing working remotely for a period of time. This could help increase their sense of well-being along with their productivity, as the weight of their stress is diminished. This will mean a lot to them.
John Bremner, the author of the book, StressCount, has designed a simple online stress assessment at www.stresscount.com. It’s quick and the cost is exceptionally reasonable—under ten dollars. It is Bremner’s personal mission to make this tool accessible to help people learn to identify and manage their stress.
A basic action plan comes with each assessment, helping us to understand the root causes of our stress and what we might do to help ourselves.
Bremner recommends identifying people in our lives who cause us stress and why, and how we might alter our interpretations or actions to eliminate or lessen the stress we feel. Unhealthy stress is, to a degree, internal. We can learn to change our thoughts and how we respond. I have taken the assessment and found it helpful, as have friends.
A confidential individual stress assessment offered by companies would be a wonderful employee benefit. This could be very helpful, even life-changing, for some of our people. Just think of how appreciative our people would be if we offered this benefit at our expense, or partially so. What a wonderful and not at all costly investment.
A CEO of a company I’ve worked with learned about how overwhelming stress is becoming and rightfully assumed it has to be a problem with many in his company. To become more knowledgeable, he took the stress assessment himself and then arranged for a meeting with a stress management coach, actually John Bremner, to learn more about the problem and how he might be helpful to his people. This is leadership! Servant leadership!
Not surprisingly, the people in this company are generally exceptionally happy and have great pride in the company.
One of the business development specialists in a company learned about the stress assessment and coaching and asked if she could have access. Within a few coaching sessions, her positive energy soared and she literally gained her largest new client sale ever and even received a fruit basket from this new client, thanking her for her wonderful work in helping them.
We could consider bringing a specialist like Bremner in to speak with managers and employees about stress, its harmful effects, and helpful solutions.
In the meantime, let’s assess our own stress level. Hopefully, it is fine. Regardless of our own level, doing so may help us become better able to recognize and help (serve) those who are struggling. Once we assess our own stress, we can encourage our team members to do the same.
Assessing our stress ourselves and offering it to our people is preventive medicine. Stress, when properly attended to early, can be much more easily addressed than if ignored, as it often becomes worse and worse, sometimes slowly, sometimes precipitously.
As leaders, we must be concerned about the well-being of our people and the ever-increasing issue of unhealthy and undue stress. Let’s be part of the solution. iBi
John P. Keyser works with senior executives striving to become highly effective leaders – and their best selves. He is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Leadership, a leadership consulting and coaching firm. For more information, visit www.commonsenseleadership.com and whenleadershipimproves.com. His new book, When Leadership Improves, Everyone Wins: A Discussion of the Principles of Highly Effective Leadership, is available for purchase on Amazon.