Workplace stress isn’t easy to define, but we all know what it feels like when it happens.

Fatigue, anxiety, lack of focus and feelings of hopelessness and despair are all common when suffering from work-related stress.

Not to mention the migraines, stomach problems and physical symptoms which often accompany stress and increased levels of tension at work.

Not only are these effects extremely unpleasant for the individual, but they also have grave consequences for an organisation.

High stress levels amongst a team or workforce can have a direct and negative knock-on effect on how your employees interact with clients, how well they can achieve their goals and the way that they cooperate with their co-workers.

Alongside that, stress is directly associated with higher sickness rates, poor workforce health levels and lower productivity.

Make no mistake; stress seriously damages your workforce, on an individual and organisational level. The truth is, a stressed employee is seldom a productive employee, which is why managing stress is such a key-task for managers and leaders today.

Stress as a by-product of 21st century business culture

If you’re a manager or business owner, then you can be sure that most of your employees have experienced work-related stress or anxiety at some point in their career. Indeed many of us will openly admit to stress and pressure being an accepted part of our daily work.

With increased job uncertainty and lack of financial stability for businesses and companies across the globe, and a constant trend of change in the present business culture, it’s no wonder that job-strain and pressure are a part of the average workplace.

People are working longer hours, giving themselves less leisure time and micromanagement is still rife in many organisations.

A sure-fire recipe for stress!

The subjectivity of job strain

There’s no doubt that external stress factors play a huge role in levels of workplace anxiety and job strain.

Nonetheless, the real challenge in understanding the causes of individual workplace stress lies in the highly subjective and individual nature of the problem. Stress and tension both take very different guises in each one of your employees.

This means that combating stress involves understanding what the “stress buttons” are for each of your people, helping them to foresee possible stressful situations and to manage those situations better, collaboratively.

Some employees become stressed from having insufficient information or clear guidance from their manager. Others get hot under the collar and start to feel the pressure when given little or no opportunity to be creative and try new things at work.

These things may initially seem trivial to you, because you have your own subjective “stress buttons”, but to other people, these are very real problems; and stressful ones at that.

Job strain leads to increased heart disease

Not only does workplace stress seriously kill productivity and our ability to focus well and do our job properly. If left unchecked for long, workplace stress can lead to enormous personal and health-related problems.

These aren’t just incredibly distressing for us as individuals, but also cost organisations massively in lost productivity and reduced effectiveness.

According to the Lancet medical research findings from the UK, published in a recent Guardian article, there is now concrete data to show that job strain is linked to a small, but increased risk of coronary heart disease.

The study shows that people who have highly demanding jobs and little freedom to make decisions are 23-percent more likely to experience a heart attack compared with people who are not exposed to work strain.

Researchers, who analysed job strain amongst nearly 200,000 people from 7 European countries between 1985 and 2006, have clearly shown that stress and strain at work is bad for our health and bad for our heart. This is serious stuff.

If you’re wondering what job-strain actually means, the Lancet medical journal defines it as involving:

  • high demands on the individual
  • little freedom to make own decisions about how and when work is done

In short, job-strain can be seen as having lots of responsibility without being able to influence how to handle that responsibility. What a fatal combination.

The 7 1/2-year long study also shows that:

  • Stress effects people in highly and in lower paid jobs
  • Stress is not limited to any specific industry
  • High-demand and low control is a problematic combination
  • Stress is common in repetitive work but is present across the whole social spectrum

Participants of the study were asked to assess whether they had excessive workloads and too little time to complete their work and just how much freedom they had in making work-related decisions. The results are a grave warning for employers everywhere; workplace stress is no trivial matter, regardless of how you look at it.

 

What can managers do to combat job strain?

Although occupational psychologists and HR managers have already seen the importance of combating work-related stress and job strain on the frontline, managers should also be aware of their role in identifying and dealing with stress amongst their employees and teams too.

Here are a few things that you can do to help keep your workforce safe from stress:

  • Stay in close and regular dialogue with your employees
  • Give employees opportunities to plan their own work
  • Don’t make discussion about stress taboo
  • Identify what situations motivate and demotivate each person
  • Be a coach and mentor not a control freak
  • Review job requirements regularly to monitor the person/role fit
  • Allocate the right tasks to the right kind of people
  • Resolve conflict quickly – don’t avoid it
  • Encourage employees to take holidays and lunch breaks
  • Create awareness of the dangers of workplace stress

What do you think?

Do you think stress management is a key task of the modern manager or leader, or does HR still have the primary responsibility for employee wellbeing?

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