Do you have a stress bandit in the workplace? Many employees are unaware of their stress, and others feel they simply can’t do anything about it. In reality, the do-nothing attitude is causing loss of productivity, unhealthy workplace relationships, costly employee turnovers, absenteeism and increased healthcare costs. A simple examination of your business can eliminate or highly reduce this silent productivity killer.
Let’s look at why people get stressed in general. While blanket statements like “poor working conditions create stress” generally acknowledged as true, these statements may mislead us in looking for the right answer, or when trying to ask the right questions, such as: “Google’s workplace is quite enviable, but does that mean that Google employees have no stress?”
Let’s explore stress factors common among most people, whether in the workplace or in personal life:
Lack of time or perceived lack of time – When you drive to the airport to have dinner at a nice restaurant close by, you don’t have any stress. Drive to the same airport knowing that if you are not there in 50 minutes you will miss your flight, and you will have an amazingly stressful ride and may arrive at the airport with stubs where your nails previously were.
How do you overcome it? Make sure you are realistic about the deadlines you set for yourself and your employees. It’s important to set deadlines because people need to know when work is due, but an unrealistic deadline either will get you an delayed project, or a half-baked project and a stressed out team. It’s understood that everyone has emergencies. But running emergency projects should be the exception, not the norm.
Too many open folders – Regardless of whether you are a good multi-tasker or not, working on too many things at the same time is stressful. Since our motivation is to accomplish projects and do them well, a portion of our mind is occupied with that laundry list of things to do, which will in turn cause stress. If too many tasks are forced upon us, that stress is mixed with resentment and the results are substantially worse.
How do you overcome it? Seems simple, but set priorities. In reality, in multi-tasking, you (or your computer) are doing only one thing at a time. However, in the larger time spans, it appears that multiple things got done simultaneously. Setting priorities not only will help you stay on track, it will require you to be aware of all points of view, project dependencies and your talent pool. In addition, you might want to break down your projects into the smallest feasible time span. For instance, if projects are broken down to 4-hour or 1-day chunks, as one segment is stalled awaiting a resource, you can use that time slot for another segment.
Lack of clarity/tentative status/indecision – People need to know where they stand. They like to clearly know what is expected of them and what their status is. Indecision, or worse yet, flipped/flopped decisions, lead to uncertainty. Uncertainty is the lifeline of stress.
How do you overcome it? Steve Jobs used to say: “Clarity is priceless.” I could not agree more. Be clear in your requirements. If tasks are given to you by others, ask for clarity before embarking on the project. Not only be a better communicator, but also request that others communicate more clearly. Keeping every interested party abreast of the progress or bottlenecks is no longer a nicety; it’s an absolute requirement for every project.
You can choose from a variety of communication tools. Each has its own benefits and not all will fit your team. These can range from email and mailing lists, to Twitter, social task apps and more. All of these solutions work in different ways, but all have one thing in common: you must ensure that the communication happens and that it does so consistently, clearly, and punctually.
Lack of knowledge – People get stressed out when they don’t have the right expertise to deal with the situation. I remember the first time I attempted to do my own tax return. While most people told me that it’s a walk in the park, I was completely stressed by it. I quickly realized that I didn't have the knowledge necessary for the task and I delegated to an expert. The stress instantly disappeared. For the past 30 years, someone else has been preparing my taxes and the money I pay is peanuts compared to the stress I would have gone through.
How do you overcome it? Create an environment in which people do not fear bringing up their lack of expertise. If they secretly struggle, not only will the project suffer, but they will be severely stressed. This does not mean that you should not challenge your team to push the envelope and expand their expertise. It simply means that if something is “unsolvable” by them, they should feel free to ask for an expert. On the management side, the cost of hiring an expert should not be feared either. Sometimes, paying an expert five times as much as your employee seems exorbitant, but when the project is done in one-tenth of the time, it’s clear to see that the investment is well worth it.
Change – Some people easily are bored. That boredom causes stress for them and they crave change. However, for the majority of people, it’s the change that causes stress. Changing jobs, cities, houses, significant others, schools – all of these can cause tremendous stress. Among younger people, the fear of the unknown is the stress-causing culprit, and when you are older, it’s the effort it takes to re-familiarize yourself with something new that stresses you out. This is why our grandparents get stressed with computers, and we get stressed playing our kids' video games.
How do you overcome it? Focus on the benefits of the change. If you can’t clearly articulate the benefits vs. the threats of the change, don’t embark on it. If the change is good for the company, but employees are hesitant to support it, you as the team leader must gain buy-in.
You may have the power to force the change on your team, but the stress it will cause will be akin to you shooting yourself in the foot. For the change to be successful, you need to ensure that employees know all the facts, and that your team can see the greater benefit. Do not force change, even if it means that you have to rearrange your talent pool for this project or bring in consultants.
Worrying about events that have not happened yet – The world is filled with worst-case scenario people. This mentality makes you stressed about something that may or may not happen. Why waste brain cells?
How do you overcome it? Aim for the best-case scenario, and plan to deal with less-ideal outcomes. The net effect is the same, but this option lets you enjoy the journey. Communicate the plan to your team, both in achieving the positive and dealing with disasters. After you do this a couple of times, a trust will be built that will help you with all ongoing and future projects. Trust is a major stress-buster.
Lack of control – Perhaps the most common reason for stress in the workplace is lack of control. Employees feel that they either don’t have control over a situation, or they are not allowed to apply their solution to the problem at hand.
How do you overcome it? I know it sounds a bit like Mr. Spock, but this formula really works: If a problem has a solution, there is no reason to stress, just apply the solution. If there are no solutions to the problem, then stressing about it won't help, but will slow you down in trying find an alternative.
Applying a solution or creating a workaround means you are taking action about the problem, as opposed to just stressing about it. Your job as a manager is to consult with your team both to gauge their comfort level, and also to openly ask for solutions they may have. It’s the people who are closer to the problem who often have the best solution. A CEO of a company may make big decisions, but the janitor is much more capable than that CEO to decide how do deal with the day-to-day emptying of the trashcans.
Physical health/relationships – When people don’t feel good about themselves, they get stressed. When they get stressed, many seek instant gratification. Some shop, eat high-calorie “upper” foods, drink, smoke, etc. Needless to say, these acts of instant gratification not only don’t reduce stress, they compound it.
As a manager, you may feel that the personal well-being of your employees is none of your business. In fact, most employees spend most of their waking hours at work and their personal status not only affects their work, but also the entire company’s performance.
How do you overcome it? Make sure employees feel open to tell you about their personal situations. Offer to act as a sounding board when they come to you for advice. Make sure your employees know that you will never use what you learn from these personal situations later on in business settings so that they feel comfortable coming to you. Build that trust. If you feel your team can benefit from it, invest in stress-busters such as a company health-club membership, team outings, company picnics and more. Build that bond. It will make your employees stronger and more loyal, and it will make the company a better place.
There certainly are more causes for stress than those listed here, but the list can span the scope of this article and easily become a book. In addition, different things stress different people. This is perhaps why many people have given up on stress management and have relegated this monster to a fact of life. However, being aware of the most common stress-causing factors will not only allow you to be proactive in reducing stress in your workplace, it also will help you grow as a leader.
About the author: Siamak Farah is the CEO of InfoStreet. InfoStreet is a Cloud app provider that offers SkyDesktop, a free patent-pending Cloud Desktop; SkyAppMarket, an app marketplace where a business can choose from Cloud apps in the market; and SkySingleSignOn, a federated loginsolution and network management tool.