Doing business naturally comes with a lot of stress. Making decisions, meeting expectations, and working together all push us out of our comfort zones. However, while some challenges come and go, leaving us with a sense of accomplishment, others keep lurking in the background. Unlike those challenges we accept and overcome, chronic unresolved stress drains our motivation and erodes our self-esteem.
Toxic stress is the enemy of sustained productivity and the long-term success of any business. Excess cortisone in the workplace leads your employees to fight or flight at the exact moment when you need them to hang in and cooperate. And it gets worse.
Not only does stress cloud your people’s judgment, it also ruins their health. A 2015 Harvard study estimated that workplace stress accounts for anywhere from $125 to $190 billion a year in medical bills—representing 5 to 8 percent of national spending on health care.
Can you do anything about it?
You could if you knew what your employees are stressed about.
The easiest way to get an answer is to ask them directly. Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable opening up to management and coworkers, especially when those are the people your employees hold responsible for their stress.
To get to the bottom of persistent stress at your workplace, you might have to do some second-guessing at first. For example, you could use published research to point you in the right direction. Harris Poll, whose stated mission is to “reveal the authentic values of modern society to inspire leaders to create a better tomorrow,” has some intriguing data. In 2014, the company telephoned 1,004 working Americans to find out what stresses them the most about their jobs. The following results appeared in the 2014 Annual Work Stress Survey report:
(Source: 2014 Work Stress Survey)
Sound familiar? You can plug these stressors into your company’s internal survey and see how they resonate with your people. Naming the elephants in the room will encourage your employees to give you an honest response. You could also use the Harris Poll stats to benchmark your own. For example, if more than five percent of your employees blame their work stress on their boss, you might decide to investigate further. Otherwise, you might write it off to human nature.
Now, wait a minute, Tim! Before I open this can of worms, I better have a plan for handling all these complaints. I’m sure my employees would love it if I doubled their salaries, but it doesn’t mean I can afford to do that.
No worries. Addressing your employees’ concerns won’t require that all responsibility for solving them fall on your shoulders. We often avoid touchy subjects, especially at work, because we don’t have a quick fix. But that’s not necessarily what people expect of us. If you think about a boss you’ve respected and enjoyed working for, chances are that he or she didn’t always give you the answer you wanted to hear, but you could count on her to:
- Make you feel heard
- Take your concerns seriously
- Show you that she cares
- Explain her thinking
Notice that, when sincere, these behaviors relieve stress, even though they don’t provide instant solutions. And that could be a huge step in the right direction. Because, even though we think we need a solution to our problem before we can let go of stress, in life the reverse is often true: we let go of stress, and a solution magically appears.
That said, you don’t need to come to the table empty-handed. In the next four posts, I will cover each of the top four responses from the 2014 Annual Work Stress Survey. You will learn how other successful businesses have dealt with them. You’ll see that stress is not a zero-sum game, and managers don’t need to pass it on to employees to keep their own heads above water. I’m sure you’ve tried that before, and you’ve noticed that it always boomerangs back to you.
For those of you dealing with the remaining challenges on the list—or the ones that didn’t make it into the top ten—I’d like to recommend my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? My goal in writing it was to eliminate unnecessary stress and conflict from the workplace. Here are a few examples:
- Chapter 24, Give Them a Break, deals with rest and work-life balance.
- Chapter 2, Hire Traits and Behaviors, will help you make sure your employees are well matched to their jobs.
- Chapter 8, Use Them or Lose Them, is about getting your people to use their best skills.
- Chapter 9, Support Career Development, will help you find opportunities for your ambitious employees.
- Chapter 7, What Kind of Boss Are You?, will send you on the path of self-awareness and introspection and help you broach difficult subjects with your subordinates.
- Chapter 18, Communicate, will show you how to bring clarity and goodwill in place of uncertainty and fear.
- And Chapter 25, Let the Walls Help, is all about improving your employees’ working conditions.
Now that you know you have options, find out what’s bugging your people. Chances are, it’s not existential world problems but something closer to home, like constant deadlines or noisy coworkers. Most of our problems are not hard to fix, but we let them fester out of fear and habit. Don’t fear an open and honest dialogue with your employees. And don’t make stress your work habit.
If you dislike stress, you might like my book, because it will make you feel better about your job.