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Leadership and Strategy: Stress Fails the Productivity Test

Feb. 14, 2013
How handling stress in the manufacturing workforce effects health and productivity.

Bob Papes knows something about stress in manufacturing. His career has included five assignments as the executive brought in to execute turnarounds in failing manufacturing businesses, ranging in size from 150 to 300 employees.

 "Manufacturing is stressful enough, but when you are doing a turnaround, that is even more stressful. All of these people's jobs and incomes are riding on the line. If you don't get it done, they are all going to be out of work," says Papes, a consultant and author of "Turnaround" (Cypress, 2002).

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

Manufacturing provides the reward of producing something tangible, notes Ana Weber, the CFO of Binder Metal Products and a life coach and author, but she says it is also a demanding sector. Manufacturers are always facing deadlines, she points out. Frequently they are part of an OEM's supply chain so their customer's success depends on them meeting their particular deadline. There is also a constant demand for quality. "Returns will kill the bottom line," she notes. And manufacturers face a very competitive market, where they have to be careful how they price their products.

Work-related stress, of course, is hardly unique to manufacturing. "In our last survey, 70% of people said work was a significant source of stress for them," says Dr. David Ballard, director of the American Psychological Association's Center for Organizational Excellence.

Stress is a natural reaction, designed to help us cope with short-term threats, Ballard points out. But nowadays, stress tends to be chronic rather than subside after some immediate danger. APA's survey found 41% of adults say they routinely feel stressed out at work. This chronic stress poses a host of problems, from reduced performance to sleeplessness and a variety of physical and mental ailments.

How Healthy is the Executive Suite?

"In turnarounds, the best way to reduce stress is to generate good results." -- Bob Papes

The old bromide that it's lonely at the top can indeed apply to the stress managers' experience. They have lower levels of social support at work, in large part because they have fewer peers. They also experience higher work demands and higher levels of conflict. But Ballard says, "At the same time, research suggests they experience lower levels of stress, due to psychosocial factors such as more autonomy and control over their job and what they do day to day and the fact they are more involved in decisions that affect their work life." Those factors tend to offset the stress-inducing aspects of their jobs.

Career change often provides opportunities for more responsibility and income, but it also is highly correlated with stress in executives, says  Naomi Swanson, a research psychologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. New duties often call for learning new skills, or, in the case of a relocation, learning about a new operation and coping with an unfamiliar community.

For manufacturing managers, the problems associated with stress can go well beyond their own health. "In a sense, executives are responsible for the health of their organizations as well as their own health," says NIOSH's Swanson. "If they are not taking care of their own health, they are not providing a good role model and not taking care of the organization as well."

One issue, says Ballard, is that executives may fail to understand or empathize with employees who don't share their outlook and capabilities. "Often, the people who rise to those positions thrive in an environment where they have a little bit higher level of stress or they like that added level of stimulation." As a result, they come to believe that stress equates to motivation and leads to greater productivity. But in fact, warns Ballard, "stress is an overwhelming of resources and is negative."

Many worry that new technologies such as smartphones and 24/7 connectedness are only adding to work-related stress. So far, says Ballard, the impact is unclear.

"About half of people tell us technology helps reduce their stress and helps them manage the demands on them," says Ballard. "The other half say it actually increases their stress and adds to the problem. A lot depends on how well you manage that technology so that it is a tool that you are using to be more effective rather than you being at the whim of the technology itself."

How can executives deal with stress? First, it's important to recognize the problem. Common signs of stress include poor sleep patterns, irritability or trouble staying focused. Physical issues can manifest such as a stiff neck or sore back, or a rise in blood pressure.

Common -- and unhealthy -- reactions to stress include smoking, drinking more or eating junk food. Not unexpectedly, health experts recommend getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise. They also say it's important not to look at stress as a sign of weakness and to take advantage of health benefits such as stress management programs.

Papes employed a variety of tools to engineer manufacturing turnarounds but he says none was more important than gathering a leadership team around him to tackle the problems facing the operation, and employing a participative management style to get the whole organization working to achieve the results needed.

"In turnarounds, the best way to reduce stress is to generate good results," says Papes.

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