Find the Right Balance Between Stress and Results

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Apr 13, 2010
Reuse Permissions

Recent studies reveal that employees—and employers—have a heightened awareness of the impact the recession has had on employee stress levels. However, that does not mean that all workplace stress can, or should, be eliminated.

A poll released Feb. 22, 2010, by ComPsych Corp., an employee assistance program administrator, revealed that the majority of 791 U.S. workers surveyed were worried about the job stress and workload they would face in 2010. According to ComPsych, when asked what they expected in terms of job stress and workload in 2010:

  • 34 percent said “I’m very worried.”
  • 40 percent said “I’m somewhat worried.”
  • 26 percent said “I’m not worried.”

“Following an economically trying year, many workers have weathered layoffs and budget cuts in addition to the normal, first-quarter spike in stress levels,” said Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych, in a statement. This has led some to seek help in managing stress. Employers should take this opportunity to support employees, especially those who have taken on additional work,” he added.

Fortunately, some business leaders said, the need to keep employees happy (though not necessarily stress-free) is a key lesson learned from the global economic downturn. When asked to select from among several options which was the greatest lesson they learned from the recession, the largest percentage of 1,400 chief financial officers at U.S.-based companies that were surveyed by Robert Half Management Resources placed employee morale at the top of the list. The options included:

  • Place greater focus on maintaining employee morale: 27 percent.
  • Take decisive measures more quickly to avoid multiple rounds of cost cutting: 22 percent.
  • Make sure you have enough staff to maintain productivity: 22 percent.
  • Implement more detailed succession plans: 15 percent.
  • No lessons learned: 11 percent.
  • Don’t know/no answer: 2 percent.
  • Other: 1 percent.

“Without a motivated workforce and adequate staffing levels, companies can be ill-equipped to take advantage of improving market trends,” said Paul McDonald, executive director of Robert Half, a staffing firm. “They may also risk losing top employees as the job market strengthens.”

Work Is a Key Source of Stress

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) 2009 Stress in America study, employed Americans continue to say their work is a significant source of stress, even though they reported greater satisfaction with their jobs than in 2008. The report, released in November 2009, revealed that 51 percent of employees report some amount of lost productivity attributable to stress while at work (compared to 40 percent in 2008).

For the first time the APA found that more working adults agreed (41 percent) than disagreed (36 percent) that they typically feel tense or stressed out during their workday (compared to 39 percent who agreed and 39 percent who disagreed in 2008, and 34 percent who agreed and 41 percent who disagreed in 2007).

Many of the warning signs of stress described on the APA web site might be undetectable by managers, such as headaches, upset stomach, dry mouth or chest pains. However, others, such as jitters, irritability, short temper and forgetfulness, might be far easier to spot.

Managing Stress

Profiles International, an employee assessment company, has published guidance for business leaders who need a way to help their employees manage workplace stress.

"It's very empowering to managers to be able to recognize signs of stress and to actually be able to do something about them. Addressing stress increases productivity and job satisfaction, which are great metrics for allowing managers to feel like they've added value to the organization," said Dario Priolo, managing director of the Profiles International Research Institute, in a statement.

The guidance notes that employers can do their part to minimize stress by understanding, and limiting where possible, some of the common types of workrelated stressors, such as:

  • Lack of control.
  • Time/deadline pressure.
  • Poor relationships.
  • Excessive travel.
  • Lack of consultation/communication.
  • Work overload.
  • Understaffing.
  • Organizational change.
  • Threat of layoff.

“We know that workplace stress can be a major factor in job satisfaction,” added Jim Sirbasku, co-founder and CEO of Profiles International, in a statement. “A recent report by the Wall Street Journal stated that nearly one-third of employees surveyed considered quitting their jobs because of work-related stress. It may only take one or two minor changes in order to mitigate, or even alleviate, such stress, but companies can only address it if they know what causes it and what to do about it.”

However, a certain amount of the responsibility for stress management lies with the individual.

The Profiles International guidance includes a list of things individuals can do to control their stress levels, such as:

  • Developing support structures and talking to people.
  • Taking control of the situation by saying “no” to excessive demands, prioritizing, slowing down, leaving on time, taking breaks and exercising.
  • Being objective and avoiding the tendency to jump to conclusions, to take things personally and to “make mountains out of mole hills.”
  • Recognizing the impact of change and the stages one goes through when experiencing change.
  • Maintaining selfesteem and remembering that one is not always alone in one’s thoughts and feelings.

A Little Tension Goes a Long Way

The varying temperaments, work responsibilities and personal circumstances employees have make it difficult for employers to create the perfect, stress-free environment. Perhaps that’s why some employees say there’s too much tension at work, some say there’s very little, but most say the amount of tension is “just right.”

On April 5, 2010, Healthy Companies International, an Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm, released the findings of a nationwide telephone survey of 492 employed Americans who said:

  • There’s too much tension in my workplace—25 percent.
  • There’s almost no tension in my workplace—33 percent.
  • There’s just the right amount of tension in my workplace—41 percent.

A definable lack of tension does not necessarily denote a kind or calm work environment, according to Stephen Parker, chief commercial officer of Healthy Companies. “Any such office or factory where everyone is totally laid back tells me that leadership isn’t doing its job properly and that workers are emotionally detached from the mission or strategy,” he said in a statement.

“Low tension can come from leaders avoiding difficult conversations, from leaders being overly idealistic or from being overly complacent about competitive realities,” he continued. “It may be that the management team is more interested in being loved than getting a job done well or in meeting objectives—favoring popularity over performance.”

But that doesn’t mean that a highly charged workplace is desirable.

Too much tension might indicate a lack of respect for employees. “Even more likely, this may be a place where management just keeps demanding more and more of workers and offering less of themselves,” Parker explained. “People aren’t stretched [in such a workplace] but taken to a breaking point. Or there may be a lack of clarity or confidence around the overall goals for the organization, so that efforts look chaotic and frantic,” he added, which can lead to a dysfunctional and unproductive environment.

The goal, therefore, is to achieve a level of tension that is “just right.”

“According to two out of five respondents, a lot of managers have it about right,” Parker said. “These would be places of work where employees do more than the minimum, where instead they exert themselves to deliver what is known as ‘discretionary effort.’ Getting it just right is what every leader ought to be striving for.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Experts: Psychologically Healthy Workplaces Boost Business, HR News, March 10, 2010

Workplace Stress? Deal with It! HR Magazine, May 2009

EAPs Face Upsurge in Calls from Stressed-Out Employees, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2, 2009

Interested in this topic?

Learn more at these SHRM Annual Conference sessions, to be held late June 2010 in San Diego, Calif.

  • Thrive! Practical Strategies to Refocus, Re-energize and Re-engage Employees to Ensure Your Company’s Quick Recovery From the Recession
  • People Are Your Business!
  • Engaged! How Leaders Build an Organization Where Employees Love to Come to Work

Learn more about this event

Reuse Permissions


HR Education in a City Near You

Find a Seminar

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect