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What Managers Can Do to Ease Workplace Stress

Employees complain of unrealistic expectations, being asked to do work beyond their skills

A woman is looking at a computer screen.

Study after study—and survey after survey—tell the same story: Modern workers feel stressed out on the job, and the stress is taking a toll on their sleep, health, relationships, productivity and sense of well-being.

Add to that the stress brought on by the coronavirus—because of furloughs, job losses, worries about getting sick, feeling isolated while working remotely.

Eight in 10 workers say they are stressed by at least one thing at work. About 1 in 2 workers in low-paying jobs say their job has a negative effect on their stress levels, while about 4 in 10 in medium- and high-paying jobs say the same, according to several sources cited by Happify Health, a New York City-based company that helps employees develop skills to reduce stress. Among those sources were the 2016 Work and Well-Being Survey from the American Psychological Association and a 2016 study by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

And new research suggests that people aged 30 to 59 are experiencing the greatest levels of anxiety over fears that they may catch the coronavirus.

"Since the lockdown measures were brought in two weeks ago, we have seen a change in what most people are worrying about," the study's lead author Dr. Daisy Fancourt said in a statement from University College London, where the study was conducted. "The current highest stress factor appears to be worries about either catching COVID-19 or becoming seriously ill from it."

Unrealistic Expectations

Just recently, Heather Kelly was speaking with a former colleague and reminiscing about their early careers.

"We were working in the office every Saturday and most weeknights until 8, and everyone had the all-nighter war story to share," said Kelly, CEO of SSPR LLC, a public relations agency with offices in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Colorado Springs, Colo. "Today, our office is often empty by 4, but folks are back online at 7 or 8. No one comes into the office on Saturday, but everyone checks their email 24/7."

"We live in a culture that values business and stress," she said. "Stress is a powerful currency. The busier and more stressed you are, the more important and valuable you seem. Is the stress level of today's worker really higher than that of a worker … [employed] when there were no labor laws or weekends? It doesn't matter. Culturally, we perceive ourselves as the most-stressed worker-era in history, and our perception is our reality."

According to the World Health Organization, workplace stress is particularly common in situations when employees are asked to do things that exceed their knowledge, abilities and coping skills, and when they do not have enough support from peers and supervisors to close that gap.

In research from Accountemps staffing service, employees also cited unrealistic manager expectations as a top stressor, along with heavy workloads and looming deadlines.

"Increasing workloads can make you feel like there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done," said Mike Steinitz, executive director for Accountemps.

In fact, the top five things that employees say make them feel stressed have to do with workplace conditions that managers could probably do something about, according to Happify Health. Those top five things are low wages or salaries, lack of opportunity for advancement or growth, too heavy a workload, unrealistic job expectations and long hours.

"It's important for managers to spot the signs of stressed-out employees, such as incomplete work, decreased productivity, lower quality of work and mistakes," Steinitz said. They can also ease up on deadlines and meet with workers and help them prioritize projects.

Even if managers only occasionally place demands on employees during off hours, employees may never really get a mental break from being at work if they know their manager could contact them at any time, said Acacia Parks, chief scientist at Happify Health. "This is not to put all the blame on managers. Employees also do this to themselves, working more in the evenings because of pressure—real or imagined—to do more."

Changes in Career Arcs

There was a time, not too long ago, when employees decided on a career, landed an entry-level position, then steadily worked their way up within the same organization until retirement, said Kyle Kensing, online content editor for CareerCast, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company that hosts an online job-search portal and publishes career management and HR advice.

"Such career arcs are decreasing, both because of human competition and technological advancements that, while making certain jobs easier, might threaten career options," Kensing said.  

"As technology and best practices evolve, so will the roles we are expected to fill and the skills we will need to fill these roles," Parks said. "The answer isn't to liberate workers from having to learn new things, but for workers to become more resilient so that they are better able to handle this type of challenge. One key piece of resilience … is how you look at a stressful situation. Do you see it as a threat or a challenge? Changing needs of the marketplace when it comes to technology could be seen as a threat, but resilient people see it as a challenge to tackle."

People are living farther from their jobs, and commuting is a relatively new stressor in the workplace. While the advent of telecommuting—especially during the coronavirus—means workers can reduce or eliminate those commutes, remote work can also shake the stability of careers.

"Telecommuting might turn the candidate pool into a regional, national or even international one for jobs that may have been local in the past," Kensing said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Experts offered other ways managers can help employees handle stress:

  • Encourage your team to take advantage of stress-management webinars, wellness tips or programs, and yoga or meditation classes. Set an example by using these resources yourself.
  • Make sure workers are taking regular breaks, and be sure to take them yourself.
  • Encourage employees to exercise daily, take time for friends or a significant other after work, pursue hobbies, listen to music and take time off.



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