When Stress Won't Go Away

By William Atkinson Dec 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, December 2000

Vol. 45, No. 12

Trying to reduce workplace stress is fine, experts say, but some stress is just part of the job. How can you prepare employees for inevitable stresses that just won't change?

One day in late 1997, Carolyn Magura, vice president of HR for Wilsonville, Ore., shipyard Cascade General Inc., sat in her office weighing competing crises.

Two shipyard employees sat across from her arguing, wanting her to adjudicate their dispute. The owner of the company was on her cell phone. The head of the production department was on her office phone. And the safety director and an employee were yelling at each other outside her office, waiting for informal dispute resolution.

How did Magura react? To those arguing inside her office, she said, "Please be quiet for now; I’ll be with you in a moment." To the two arguing outside, she said, "Please come back in an hour if you haven’t solved the problem on your own." She told the manager on her office phone that she would call back soon. "Then I got on my cell phone to find out what the president wanted," she says.

Magura simply was doing what her job required. The word for her ability to handle the multiple unavoidable stresses of her job is resilience. Magura has it—but can other employees be trained to develop it? The answer is yes, according to some experts on workplace stress. Much work-related training focuses either on eliminating specific stressful conditions from the workplace or on alleviating stress after the fact. But another approach says that differences in employees, such as how they cope with stress, are more important in predicting stress than are specific job conditions.

If stress is just an inherent part of the job, why bother to examine how well employees cope with it? Because stress takes a bite from employers’ bottom lines. The American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit research organization in Yonkers, N.Y., reports that stress costs U.S. businesses between $200 billion and $300 billion a year in lost productivity, increased workers’ compensation claims, turnover and health care costs.

Stress You Can’t Change

"The distress that a person may feel is not a result of what actually exists objectively in the job. It is a result of how the person perceives what is happening," says Al Siebert, a Portland, Ore.-based consultant and author of The Survivor Personality (Perigee Books/Berkley Publishing, 1996).

"If you had to handle 300 telephone calls a day from people wanting some sort of action from your company, would that be stressful? For most of us, it would, but the customer service reps at an insurance company I consulted with average over 400 calls a day. For them, 300 calls would be an easy day," Siebert says.

Siebert believes that "activities focusing on job stress reduction are often more harmful than helpful because they create the illusion that something called stress is ‘out there,’ constantly assaulting and harming us. In truth, what most people call stress is really an internal feeling of strain that they don’t like."

"From a personal point of view, I believe that stress is very much a perception," says Danielle Shanes, an HR research consultant for The McGraw-Hill Companies, a publishing, financial and media services business in Hightstown, N.J. "For example, some people I know get very stressed when they are forced to work under deadlines; however, I tend to thrive when I work under deadlines."

Siebert cites another example: Fill half a room with older employees who are ready to retire and the other half with young employees right out of college. Then, announce that you’re going to be introducing a new computer system. The older employees may groan and immediately feel stress. The younger employees likely will be excited about the new possibilities the system will offer.

Now assume that all of these employees work in the same office, and a major crisis hits one day. It’s likely that the young employees will experience stress, never having dealt with a major crisis. The veterans most likely will take control confidently and show the younger employees how things are done. In each case, Siebert notes, the stress felt by one group of employees or the other is a reaction to a situation, and everyone reacts differently.

"Employees’ self-management skills determine how they respond to and deal with circumstances in the workplace, including perceived stressors," adds Thomas J. O’Connor, director of PRS Disability Management, a training and consulting firm in Falls Church, Va. "Each employee brings his own set of these skills to the workplace and applies them. So the issue is how employees are behaviorally prepared to deal with and adapt to different stressors in the workplace."

O’Connor adds that while a first step toward containing workplace stress is to train managers to reduce as many sources of stress as possible, the next step is to realize that not all stress can be eliminated. "Certain things, such as market conditions, are out of an employer’s ability to control," he says.

Shanes offers another example. "If a product line is struggling, management should emphasize to the employees that it is still committed to this line, if this is indeed the case.

Management should also explain what steps the company is taking to try to address the impact of market conditions." Keeping employees in the loop with information like this can help calm fears, Shanes adds.

Employers: Check the Job Fit

Where jobs have inherent stresses, employers need to ensure that employees are in the right positions, Siebert and others note. A job that may be stressful for one employee may be sheer delight to another.

For example, a utility employee who loves being outdoors and climbing transmission towers might experience severe stress if he were required to sit in an office all day answering phone calls from customers. Conversely, an employee comfortable with being on the phone all day in an office might experience severe stress if he were required to work outside and climb transmission towers.

"You can hire someone who seems great, but six weeks later you may find that the person is miserable," observes Bob Largent, SPHR, president of HR Management Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Perry, Ga. "Often, the problem is he’s in the wrong job. You may have placed him in a job that naturally increases stress for a person with his unique characteristics."

To reduce workplace stress, train managers "in how to place employees into job responsibilities where they can excel, based on their inherent strengths," Largent says. "Managers should learn to hire people for their individual characteristics, not the skills they have. Individual characteristics include how they communicate, what they like, what they find demotivating, etc. Just because someone has skills for a job doesn’t mean they will thrive in that job."

"When talking with applicants, you don’t want to come out and tell them that they will automatically experience stress on the job," Largent adds. "What is stressful for one person may not be the case for another. What you should do is provide clear details about job expectations and the requirements to meet those expectations."

For example, he recommends talking with applicants about specific expectations to find out how the applicants react to them. "If part of the job requires making 25 sales calls per week, one applicant might respond by saying, ‘Only 25? That’s great,’ while another might respond with, ‘I don’t think I’m cut out for that kind of work,’" Largent says.

Shanes believes in getting to the root of job fit problems quickly. "When I find someone who is not working out in a job, I want to find out what is going on," she says. She explores what is working, what isn’t, what kinds of help are available to the employee and whether the employee truly wants to succeed in that specific job. "If it becomes evident the employee isn’t cut out for that job, then it is important to look for ways to make a transfer," she adds.

Management has to follow up by managing employees in ways that capitalize on their characteristics. "For example, a lot of employees like to work on their own; so, a micromanaging supervisor would be a big stressor," Largent says. "Other employees, though, like a lot of guidance and attention; so, a supervisor who fails to provide this would increase stress for these employees."

Employees: Learn to Identify Stress

While managers should have some responsibility for placing employees in the right jobs, employees also should take responsibility for identifying the jobs that will help them thrive.

"Employees should be trained in how to assess their individual characteristics and skills," suggests Shanes. To train employees to identify work-related stress, she says, have them ask themselves these questions:

  • What skills that I enjoy using am I currently using in my job?
  • What skills that I enjoy using am I currently not using?
  • What skills that I don’t enjoy using am I required to use?
  • What skills that I don’t enjoy using am I not required to use?

Assessing their own skills and preferences can help employees understand why they find some tasks or roles more stressful than others, Shanes says.

"It is important to help employees identify their behavioral limits in dealing with stressors," O’Connor says. He suggests that employees learn "how to take inventory of their coping skills in various situations. … For example, if a supervisor tells his employees that they must accomplish a certain amount of work, some employees may say nothing and then get stressed out. However, others might engage the supervisor and try to negotiate another arrangement."

Situations for which employees should gauge their coping skills include relating to supervisors and co-workers, managing workloads, dealing with change and handling multiple responsibilities, O’Connor says. Stress-related training should cover those situations.

Employees also should be encouraged to assess how much stress they are placing on themselves, according to O’Connor. "For example, if they are working a lot of overtime, are they doing so because the company requires it or because they want to earn a lot more money?"

Should the manager, or the trainer, attempt to separate the resilient employees from those with less resilience and train just the latter? No, experts warn, because judging who is and who isn’t coping well with a job’s inherent stresses is difficult. Just because some employees don’t seem to be stressed doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing it, O’Connor says.

"There is a stigma to admitting that you are struggling, especially when it comes to issues like stress and depression," he says. "Employees may feel pressure not to come forward and discuss their problems. As such, it is important to make the same training available to everyone."

According to Siebert, there are two types of employees: those who thrive on challenge and those who wither from it. Resilient people actually become stronger under pressure, he says.

"These are the same situations that can cause less resilient people to file stress disability claims. Such people tend to be open to more information on how they can become even more resilient."

Less resilient people operate like victims. "When they experience strain and feel they can’t handle certain situations, they blame something or someone else for these situations," Siebert says.

What Can You Control?

Blame wasn’t on Magura’s agenda when, in the late 1980s, the federal government closed the savings and loan where she was vice president of HR. "Those of us left in management realized that resilient people take control of their environments," she recalls. "They don’t let their environments control them." That realization prompted her interest in resilience training.

First, the company’s managers decided to partner with the government and succeed. "We wanted to create a business where, when the feds eventually sold us, we would have something worth selling," Magura recalls. "We told our employees that we wanted this to be the most exciting and positive experience of their careers."

She worked with Siebert to bring resilience training into the organization. They met with employees to allow them to vent their frustrations. Then Magura and Siebert asked employees, "What are the things you can control? And how can you control them?" Faced with a situation where some fundamental changes—like the government intervention—were beyond employee control, Magura steered employees to focus on what they could control, such as their contacts with customers.

Magura also made this promise to employees: "If you choose not to be resilient and work through this with us, I will personally help you find a new job." Not only did employees stay, but Magura actually ended up hiring even more people. The S&L made a profit and a bank bought it. "We didn’t cost the taxpayers a penny," Magura adds.

Attitude Check for Managers

As Magura and the other managers at the S&L found, helping employees become more resilient to stress can have significant benefits for management, especially in a crisis. "When workloads increase, managers value the employees who can handle the extra work without getting stressed out," says Mara Gottlieb, a New York-based training consultant.

Managers can be trained to understand individual differences in their employees and then help employees become more resilient to perceived stressful situations, as Magura did at the S&L.

"If something is not working, a lot of employees will find ways on their own to get it to work," notes Glen Fahs, director of training and organization development for Cascade Employers Association, a membership group of employers, based in Salem, Ore. "However, others will throw up their hands and assume nothing can be done. Managers should be trained to get together with these employees and say something like, ‘If you find something is not working, let me know. Then, we’ll sit down and find ways to fix it together.’"

Over time, these employees should gradually begin to see that they do have more control than they once thought—and having more control generally means less stress.

It is also important for managers to keep their own attitudes in mind. "Most managers with positive attitudes have negative attitudes toward people with negative attitudes," says Siebert. These managers need to develop a positive attitude about people with negative attitudes. "Managers must learn to assimilate the ‘negative voice’ into the workplace," he explains. "Don’t insist on changing everyone. Just accept them."

One way Siebert recommends managers deal with people who seem to operate with "negative voices" is to put them in charge of, or allow them to specialize in, the areas where they have the most complaints. "Often, being given responsibility for things employees complain about helps them begin to shift from the negative to the positive," he says.

William Atkinson is a business writer based in Carterville, Ill. He specializes in safety, health and workers’ compensation issues.

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