Stressed Out

Dec. 21, 2004
Pressures at work and at home are taking their toll on employees and the bottom line.

You're frantically working on a project for one supervisor when another manager drops in with a rush assignment. That clearly puts you in a bind because the second task will undoubtedly delay the completion of the first one. Rather than say anything to either of the supervisors -- who clearly haven't talked to each other about your workload -- you scramble to finish the rush job, then stay late and take work home to finish the first project. You become frazzled, snap at your co-workers, miss your daughter's dance recital, and make your family miserable until the projects are completed. Sound familiar? Another all-too-common scenario: You have critical work to complete, but you can't concentrate. You have a sick child at home and other personal issues that need to be resolved. But your supervisor or your company frowns on taking time off for personal matters, so you're faced with using vacation days -- or having your pay docked. Workplace stress such as this is becoming commonplace. Nearly 46% of the workers surveyed late last year by computer accessory maker Kensington Technology Group, San Mateo, Calif., said that their level of work stress had increased in the past year, with a nearly identical percentage saying that technology -- specifically, the demands of voice- and e-mail -- had increased their level of stress. Two-thirds said that the amount of work they were expected to produce was the biggest cause of stress, and less than 13% said stress levels had decreased. "The two most common complaints we hear from employees are that there is too much to do in too little time and that there is too much pressure from constant deadlines," says David Gamow, corporate trainer and cofounder of Clarity Seminars, Mountain View, Calif. "But often employees tell us that their most significant source of stress is not their workplace, but their home life. They have the feeling of being out of control or that they are a victim of life." People feel pressured by work, personal problems, or a combination of both. Some suffer because of personal expectations set too high. How does that affect the ability of workers to do their jobs? "When you feel under stress, you find your mental wheels spinning and you work mechanically rather than creatively," says Gamow. "You find yourself thinking about that last bad interaction with your manager, rather than concentrating on your task. And tasks that normally would take a few minutes of time sit unfinished for days because you lose the capacity to prioritize and you put off larger, important projects that take more energy and concentration." Sometimes stress is mild and temporary. In other instances, it has grave consequences -- for example, last year's fatal shootings in office buildings in Honolulu, Seattle, and Atlanta. Although business is quick to address issues of quality, productivity, and on-time delivery, it often ignores the impact of stressed-out workers -- even when it is obvious something should be done. One consultant recalls a staff-wide stress-management session he was scheduled to conduct when he received a call to cancel the training. The reason: An executive had just committed suicide because of stress on the job and in his personal life. When the consultant politely suggested to a company human-resources executive that this might be a good time to assess whether other executives were under the same pressures, he was firmly told no. Other executives would go off the deep end if the issues were brought up, the HR manager said. Why the reluctance of the business community to face up to the impact of stress in the workplace? "Often, management just puts its head in the sand on these issues," says Gus Stieber, director of business development, VMC Behavioral Healthcare Services, Gurnee, Ill. "They always feel that it is only temporary and that they just need to get over the hump." Another reason: "[Executives] think that uncovering stress among employees is going to highlight faults in the company and they simply don't want to expose faults," says Robert Ostermann, retired professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University and executive director of COPE, a Paramus, N. J., company he founded to deal with executive health. "They don't want to create a negative situation that exposes them to liability." Even worse, a lot of companies are simply unaware that stress is a problem in their corporations, says Dale Masi, president, Masi Research Consultants Inc., Washington. "It is denial," she says. "They just can't believe it is going to happen in their workplace. Managers judge others by themselves, and CEOs and senior managers often are not aware of the stress that the average person undergoes. They just don't see it." One explanation for that ignorance may be that it's hard to isolate workplace stress from personal stress. It's even harder to pinpoint the costs to business of workplace stress. However, Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress and clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at the New York Medical College, estimates the cost of stress in the U.S. alone to be $200 billion annually and suggests that 75% to 90% of physician visits are for stress-related complaints and illnesses, and that 60% to 80% of all industrial accidents are due to worker stress. What's more, stress -- largely a phenomenon of Western culture -- is spreading to places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, says Ostermann, because people there are adopting Western values that emphasize earnings and what they can buy. "There is less stress in developing countries where the value of family and nation is much stronger and where the value system provides the support needed to deal with greater amounts of stress," he says. How can a company assess its stress level? Stieber suggests that executives first "do the acid test" on themselves. "Have them ask themselves what the most stressful thing is on their job, why it is stressful, what it costs them, and how many other people in the organization it affects." To assess the level of stress in the rest of the workforce, he says, companies should measure whether essential work is getting done, whether workforce levels are sufficient, whether they are losing people, and whether projects are failing. If those answers paint a gloomy portrait, says Stieber, companies need to ask themselves what high levels of stress will cost them in lost business or employee attrition. "If they take an honest look at that, they'll see the need to change." That's why experts such as Ostermann suggest that the best way to start addressing workplace stress is to admit that it is a business issue and to provide support to employees. Admittedly, says Ostermann, "employers get a bad rap because if someone is stressed, he or she can readily put a finger on things at work, but in reality the difficulty of handling things outside the job contribute just as much." Still, he argues, there is "a commonality with the kinds of problems at work that cause stress and the kinds of problems that employees are probably dealing with in their lives. "If a problem at home distracts people from their jobs, why can't companies provide training to deal with that?" asks Ostermann. There are a number of resources that companies can provide to ease the daily pressures that employees face. "Anything that makes work easier reduces stress and engenders loyalty," says Odette Pollar, syndicated columnist and founder and president, Time Management Systems, Oakland, Calif. "If you allow people more flexibility in how they work, if you offer them work-at-home options, and if they are not worried about child care or elder care, they will feel that they have more control. That's why companies provide concierge services and on-site day care and encourage car pooling." Companies' growing awareness that they need to help workers balance work demands and personal lives is the reason for the emergence of work/life programs over the past 10 years, says Pollar. Among the corporations that are offering these programs is Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif. "We are very attentive to work/life issues because when someone is close to the line and is going to burn out, he or she is not productive," says Lynn Fazio, director, work/life programs, at Autodesk. "We stress to our managers that they should be on the watch for employees with signs of burnout and should encourage employees to take some time off -- at no charge to vacation time -- to refresh and renew themselves." Like many high-tech companies, Autodesk grants sabbaticals. Its employees receive a six-week paid sabbatical every four years. People who are stressed can come forward and get their workload adjusted, says Fazio. "It is acknowledged that you have a life at home that comes with you to work." Contributing the most to stress reduction at Autodesk is time flexibility. "There is no such thing as being late," says Fazio. "[Employees] set their own times and hours to get the job done, except in customer service. They can leave early. They can come in late." Autodesk doesn't track sick time either. "We know that employees will put the time in and get the work done some other time. That takes away a lot of the pressure . . . because there is nothing worse than rushing to work to be on time when you are trying to solve a personal problem that needs to be taken care of first." Similarly, Baxter Healthcare Corp., Deerfield, Ill., has made alternative work arrangements part of its corporate culture. In the mid-1990s Baxter revised its job posting system so that a manager has to specifically say whether he or she will consider an alternative work arrangement -- job sharing, flextime, compressed workweek, part-time hours -- when filling a job. In addition, employees don't have to give a reason why they want a flexible work arrangement. They just have to get the work done. "We do not ask employees why they want flexibility," says Donna Namath, manager, work and life initiatives, at Baxter. "That takes the manager out of the position of judging the reason for the flexibility." To help ease work/life stress, an increasing number of companies are offering services to help employees deal with personal tasks. Autodesk, for example, has on-site dry cleaning, a fitness center, concierge services, ATM machines, and a cafeteria that can prepare take-home meals. Andersen Consulting began concierge services five years ago. "We had a lot of people who were trying to deal with the stress of day-to-day travel that left a lot of things in their personal lives [undone]," says Patrick Coyne, director of services for the Chicago metro area. "We had to fill that void." He estimates that more than one-third of the 7,000 people in Andersen's downtown Chicago location use the service for tasks such as buying movie or theater tickets and gifts, getting clothes altered or dry cleaned, getting an oil change, or waiting at their home for new furniture, carpeting, or a repairman. But providing services, programs, and resources is only one aspect of dealing with employee stress. It's also critical that companies give workers more control over their work and allow them to modify their work environments. Giving employees more control over their jobs "seems to be a great reliever of stress in all countries," says Ostermann, who's directing an international research project on stress in different cultures. "If an individual has that kind of control at work, it will help give him or her the flexibility needed to deal with stressful problems outside of work." That's why it's important that companies assess the work environment, says Steve Kaufer, cofounder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute, Palm Springs, Calif. A company needs to ask whether its work environment emphasizes common goals or competition, says Kaufer, as well as whether it has addressed what effect repetitious, tedious, and boring tasks may have on morale. Also, does the company offer employee-friendly work schedules? Are employees well compensated and treated professionally? Do employees have concerns about job security? "The most effective way to reduce workplace stress is to identify the stress factors and make organizational changes," says Linda Rosenstock, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Cincinnati. Her suggestions: Keep the workload in line with an employee's capabilities, design stimulating and meaningful jobs, clearly define employees' roles and responsibilities, give employees the opportunity to participate in decision-making, improve communications, and design work schedules that are compatible with the demands and responsibilities an employee may have outside the job. Such an assessment can't be static. "When people leave an organization" in a restructuring or downsizing, says Pollar, "you can't just add the work to someone else's responsibilities. You have to find a way to redesign the work. You have to find out what's redundant, what's unnecessary, and what can be made more efficient . . . ." Employee stress often is exacerbated by poor communication within companies. "When people are left out, they get stressed and often it is because of poor communication," asserts Stieber. "You need to emphasize having supervisors who can communicate because, in the final analysis, the amount of stress in an organization ultimately depends on the tone that the manager sets." Pollar agrees. "People take their cue from their individual managers. Even if top execs advocate [dealing with] work/life issues, if a person's individual manager works 90 hours a week and makes comments such as, 'Oh, you're leaving at 5 p.m.,' then the worker will follow that lead." That's why she cautions people to keep in mind that "there is a limit to what any one person can do. "The only time things will change is if you, as an individual, draw the line on what your limits are," says Pollar. "Negotiate your workload with your manager. Set priorities whether it's once a week or once a day."

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