Stress: The Catalyst for Workplace Change

by Valerie J. Price, director of business operations, Coyne Graphic Finishing
Courtesy of The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Chronic stress can occur for a number of reasons; however, stress in the workplace is one of the most common forms recognized. Chronic stress is exemplified by fear, uncertainty and insecurity and can result in such harmful effects as heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive disorders and depression, just to name a few. When employers make unreasonable demands on their employees, it often can lead to increased stress levels and job failure.

The issue

Employee morale is adversely affected when employers’ demands exceed the abilities of employees. In today’s work environment, more is expected of all employees with fewer workers available to complete tasks. Twenty years ago, employees worked their eight hours and went home. Today, employees are equipped with cell phones, tablets and laptop computers, creating a virtual tether to the workplace from anywhere. Employers expect their employees to be accessible anytime of the day, even when on vacation or just a day off. Employees need time to turn “off” from the 9 to 5 stress of their jobs. By setting boundaries of when they will be available after work hours to take phone calls or do “homework,” they will diminish the stress related to always being on call2.

Employee efficiency diminishes when stress is ignored by both the employee and employer and can lead to lower production, more workplace injuries and greater job turnover. Employers spend an estimated $300 billion as a result of workplace accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, lost productivity, medical and legal expenses, insurance costs and workers’ compensation awards1.

The change

Actions to reduce workplace stress begin with organizational change, starting with a conscientious effort to improve the working conditions for all employees1. While change is rarely easy, it can be a positive experience that boosts company morale and increases productivity. Start by creating realistic job descriptions and expectations to be updated yearly. Employees often feel they have too much responsibility and too little autonomy. Spell it out for them: what they can do and how far their authority goes. For instance, if an employee notices a mistake in production on a press, can they shut the line down themselves or do they need to bring it to someone else’s (such as a manager’s) attention?

An employee who is engaged in the process is not just showing up for a paycheck every week. The employee cares about the company and takes pride in the work he produces. Which employee do you want working for you, the one who takes ownership or the one who is just there for a paycheck? Your employees are your single most expensive cost to run your company. Including your employees in the decision-making process and getting their buy-in makes changes possible.

Make sure that the changes start with the CEO and trickle down. If not, it is just another binder to put on the shelf to say, “Yes, we have that.” The following is a list from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on what should be included in the change process:

Ensure that the workload is in line with the workers’ capabilities and resources.

  • Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
  • Clearly define workers’ roles and responsibilities.
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
  • Improve communications – reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the workplace.

In all cases, this change comes in three forms:

  • Identify the problems
  • Develop the intervention
  • Evaluate the results

This is not a one size fits all solution. The size of the organization, as well as the local resources, plays an important role in the change process. Start with a committee of workers and managers to identify the problems. Conduct an employee survey (anonymous) to measure employee perceptions of job conditions, stress, health and job satisfaction1. Employers typically find these answers are rarely what management had anticipated. Analyze the data to identify problem locations and stressful job conditions. In a general discussion with employees, list the items identified and ask them for solutions. How would they fix what is wrong? Employees usually know the answer and come up with the best ideas. Follow through on an action list of items that need changed.

Depending on the problems identified in the previous step, outside resources may be needed for the design and implementation. For example, if the issue is a bully or supervisor harassing the employees, then a companywide intervention may be necessary. All employees need to be made aware of any changes that will be initiated with a group “kick-off” meeting. Make sure the solution is measurable, and follow-up with employees regularly to ensure compliance with new policies. Have a true open door policy for your employees, one that does not include fear of reprisal for voicing concerns. Make sure supervisors know that an employee is allowed to come to you to voice those concerns. If no one is coming to ‘vent,’ there may be a bigger issue. In many cases, it is due to a supervisor who wants to control what is being said and to whom.

Other important factors to consider are outside Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which give employees an avenue to cope with chronic stress. The agency also will provide a resource for work-life balance for employees. Most employees want to do well in the workplace; some just do not have the necessary tools to succeed. These are the employees that need EAPs to give them coping strategies necessary to become an excellent employee who thrives in the new work environment.