Throughout the eighties and into the nineties, work stress have continued to rise dramatically in organizations across North America. The eighties saw employees stressing out from working in a rapidly growing economy. During the nineties, beginning from the recession of 1992 till present day, employees are stressed by their own job insecurities in the face of massive downsizing and restructuring of organizations in order to be competitive on the global stage. Work stress is a very extensive topic ranging from research on the sources of stress, the effects of stress, to ways on managing and reducing stress. This report will focus first on the evidence for the harmful effects of stress at work, both mentally and physically. The last section will briefly explain why management should be concerned with rising employee stress and will describe some actions management can take to alleviate work stress.
2.0 Harmful Effects of Stress
Most research studies indicate a high correlation between stress and illness. According to authorities in the United States and Great Britain, as much as 70% of patients that are treated by general practitioners are suffering from symptoms originating from stress . Everyone experiences stress, however, each person responds to stress very differently. Their response is dependent on how each person reacts to stress emotionally, mentally, and physically. There are, however, common effects of stress for most people on the physical and mental body.
2.1 Physical Effects
The researcher Blyth in 1973 identified a list of diseases which have a fairly high causal relationships with stress. His evidence was obtained through interviews with medical experts, review of reports by the World Health Organization and consultations with the J.R. Geigy Pharmaceutical Company. The following is a list of some of the illnesses Blyth had identified :
1. Hypertension2. Coronary thrombosis3. Hay fever and other allergies4. Migraine headaches5. Intense itching6. Asthma7. Peptic ulcers8. Constipation 9. Rheumatoid arthritis10. Colitis11. Menstrual difficulties12. Nervous dyspepsia 13. Overactive thyroid gland14. Skin disorders15. Diabetes mellitus16. Tuberculosis
Research conducted by Woolfolk and Richardson in 1978 further confirmed Blyth’s list that hypertension, coronary disease, infections, and ulcers are highly related to the amount of prolonged stress an employee is subjected to. Evidence for a causal relationship between hypertension and stress was seen in a study of air traffic controllers. The work stress is enormous for this occupation due to the high responsibility for the safety of others that people is this field must bear. This study noted that air traffic controllers experiences a hypertension rate approximately 5 times greater than other comparable occupational groups .
Only in recent studies was stress linked to coronary disease. As the majority of heart attacks are caused by fatty substances adhering to the artery walls (arteriosclerosis), stress is a causal factor in that, at high levels, the amounts of the two fatty substances, cholesterol and triglycerides, in the blood steam are elevated. This is evidenced in one study of tax accountants. As the deadline for the annual tax filing drew nearer, cholesterol levels rose without decreasing until 2 months later. The situation here shows that cholesterol in the blood rises gradually with constant exposure to stress.
There is also strong evidence for the causal relationship between stress and infectious disease. Woolfolk was able to show that employees that are very fatigue (a symptom of stress) were more susceptible to infections. In his study conducted upon 24 woman during the flu season, every woman was administered a certain amount of flu virus into their blood stream. Woman in the group who were fatigued were administered a smaller dose than those who were not. Woolfolk found that the women who had just gone through very stressful experiences were more susceptible to the infection despite a very small dosage of the flu virus. The other women who were not tired did not get infected even though they had considerably high dosages of flu virus in them .
Lastly, evidence that ulcers are associated with high stress levels have been conclusively proven by Woolfolk. Ulcers occur when digestive juices burn a hole in the stomach lining. A person under stress or anxiety would stimulate the rapid secretion of digestive juices into the stomach. Thus, when a person is subjected to constant tension and frustration, he / she has a high likelihood that an ulcer would occur. Evidence for this was provided by the study performed by Dr. Steward Wolf. He was able to monitor activities of a patient stomach, and where the patient responded to an emotional situation, he observed the excessive secretion of stomach acids. Woolfolk and Richardson further the studies by showing increased levels of stomach acids during high exposure to stress.
2.1 Psychological Effects
Most organizations have recognize that stress can have an adverse effect on the efficiency of their employees. In 1978, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) cited their study report that there are essentially three psychological reactions to consistently high stress levels: repression of emotion, displacement of anger, and isolation.
Repression of emotions occur often in human service professionals such as policemen or accountants. Their roles demand that they suppress their emotions when interacting with clients. Thus, when the stress levels begin to rise as they deal with more and more clients, they would put up an even greater resistance to their own emotions . Over time, the professional may not be able to relax that emotional resistance. All their emotions would be masked and retained within themselves, resulting ultimately in mental and emotional disorders.
In stressful times, employees are often displeased or angry with something. However, there are usually limited channels in which employees can express their views. Since opinions, views, and feelings cannot always be expressed to anyone to change the current situation, there would be an accumulation of anger and frustration within the individual. Up to a certain point, the anger would be released, usually at the wrong person or time, such as colleagues, clients, or family members. This symptom has a tremendous impact on society because there is a potential that it may hurt others people. Take for example the US postal shootings over last few years. All of them were a result of accumulated anger and frustration of US postal workers where they eventually released all that pent-up anger at one time towards other colleagues. Moreover, many cases of spousal abuse, child abuse, alcohol abuse, dysfunctional families are a result of overstressed employees unable to diffuse or cope with the anger and frustration building up within them.
The 1978 IACP’s report stated that isolation is a common side-effect of working under tremendous stress. For many service practitioners, they are not always readily welcomed by the clients that they serve. A prime example would be policemen who are shunned often by the public. Over time, a feeling of isolation and rejection would envelop the person. The natural thing to do would be to withdraw from others who do not understand their plight, resulting in profound human loneliness .
The symptoms mentioned above are usually long-term effects. There are many other short term, psychological effects of stress that can be readily seen or felt. The following is by no means a
definitive list of mental effects as it only illustrates some of the symptoms that could readily identified in a person under constant stress :
1. Constant feeling of uneasiness2. Irritability towards others3. General sense of boredom4. Recurring feelings of hopelessness in life5. Anxiety regarding money6. Irrational fear of disease7. Fear of death8. Feelings of suppressed anger9. Withdrawn and isolated 10. Feelings of rejection by others (low self-esteem)11. Feelings of despair at failing as a parent12. Feelings of dread toward an approaching weekend13. Reluctance to vacation14. Sense that problems cannot be discussed with others15. Short attention span16. Claustrophobic
3.0 Management’s Role in Reducing Work Stress
Employee stress can have an enormous impact to an organization in terms of cost. As many studies have shown, there is a high correlation between stress and job performance. At moderate levels, stress is beneficial in that it can cause individuals to perform their jobs better and attain higher job performance. However, at high levels, stress can decrease productivity instead. This is the case often seen in employees at many organizations . Furthermore, aside from costs associated with lost productivity, there are costs with respect to stress-related absenteeism and organizational medical expenses. Specifically, these include costs of lost company time, increases in work-related accidents disrupting production, increases in health care costs and health insurance premiums, and most importantly, decreases in productivity .
There are numerous methods that organizations could adopt to reduce undue stress in their employees. However, measures taken to counter this problem are usually tailored specifically for the particular organization. Therefore, this report has chosen two separate actions which are fundamental to most organizations that management can take.
3.1 Reduction of Employee Stress as an Organizational Policy
The first step any organization should take to help its employees reduce and cope with stress is to incorporate into the company policies a positive and specific intent on reducing undue stress. This would indicate that top management is committed to such a stress reduction program. Furthermore, the amendment to the policies should also include a recognition that this initiative will benefit the achievement of other organizational goals by enhancing the productivity of employees through lowered stress levels . After the inclusion of the broad mission goal of reducing employee stress, management should draft out plans which specifically lays out the provisions to accomplish that goal. As earlier mentioned, there are many approaches to stress reduction, thus the provisions should detail only the methods specific to the organization. For example, they could specify that employees undergo periodic physical and psychological examinations and personnel surveys to ascertain current stress levels. Another alternative would be to provide personal counseling to employees to identify undue stress levels and then to advise any corrective measures for the individual. In any case, the most important beginning step is a total reexamination and revision of company policies, plans, and procedures to enhance employees’ own methods of coping with stress, and simultaneously, promote an organizational climate which actively assists employees to minimize their stress.
3.2 Fundamental Techniques to Employee Stress Reduction
One method management can employ to alleviate employee stress is to make them fitter to deal with the everyday pressures of work . There are three basic management techniques that would accomplish this goal. Managers should be clear about their expectations of employees and clearly convey these expectations to each person. Secondly, management should devise a performance-evaluation-feedback system such that each employee would be aware of his / her performance level based on the feedback received. Lastly, employees should be fully capable of performing their job tasks. Stress arises when employees do not possess the necessary skills to carry on with the work assigned to them. Therefore, job training programs are essential to reducing anxiety and stress associated when employees feel that they do not possess sufficient skills or knowledge to perform the job that they were hired for.
3.2.1 Communicating Management’s Expectations
In an organization, it would appear that all employees have a clear understanding of their roles they were hired for and the duties expected of them. This assertion is often valid for employees working at the front line, such as workers on an assembly line. Strict procedural guidelines dictates the tasks and procedures each worker would assume. However, at higher levels in the organizational hierarchy, an employee’s duties and responsibilities may not be as apparent. A middle manager or team leader’s role could entail many different responsibilities and duties such as managing, coordinating, leading, planning, etc. Despite a detailed job description when the individual was hired, there often exists a cloud of ambiguity as to what the position exactly encompasses given the wide-ranging scope of the position . Work stress arises as a result of this because employees would be distressed over uncertainty of the sufficiency of their tasks in relevance to their position and role. Furthermore, employees may not be clear as to the amount of work expected of him or her. When employees do not know how much effort they should commit to their jobs in order to satisfy their superior’s expectations, a certain level of employee work stress would arise in that the individual would be constantly worried about the adequacy of his / her level of effort. In essence, employees need to know exactly the tasks expected of them and the level of effort to put into those tasks.
The issue here is essentially a communications problem between management and employees. Management should communicate its expectations to employees whether as a group or individually. Since increased communications is the primary solution in this case, management should also promote a working environment where employees are encouraged to voice their concerns, questions, etc. to their respective superiors. Managers, themselves, should adapt a managing style that is sensitive and responsive to employee stress. Communication of management expectations can be achieved by analyzing each role in the organization to clarify priorities and resolve conflict between roles. This approach would first, clarify any ambiguity an employee may have about his / her position. Secondly, it effectively eliminates the stress from not knowing what or how much to do. Informing employees of their role expectations is only the beginning to reducing stress levels . Employee also require feedback from their performance measures.
3.2.2 Providing Feedback to Employees
Once role expectations are known, employees require feedback on their performance to determine whether those expectations are met. In the absence of feedback, employees would be worrying if their current levels of effort are satisfying the expectations of them. A state of ambiguity would arise again, resulting in increased stress levels.
A systematic approach in providing periodical performance feedback to all employees in the organization is required. One common approach adopted by many companies are staff and staff-development schemes. They entail a periodical one-on-one interview between managers and each of his / her subordinates. During the interview, the manager would inform the employee of his / her performance relative to previously set standards (ie. expectations). The employee would be encouraged to provide his / her concerns regarding the performance evaluation. Any problems and / or requests for assistance would be communicated to the manager at this point. To conclude the interview, the employee would set attainable future goals to improve or maintain the current performance level.
Royal Bank is a strong advocate of staff-development schemes. Employees meet with their managers once every four months to discuss the employees’ performance to-date. The interview process is characterized by the supportive and encouraging roles every manager adopts towards their subordinates. Unlike many other appraisal interviews, managers do not only focus and highlight employee weaknesses. When certain deficiencies in performance are discussed, managers recognize that negative feedback is uncomfortable to both parties and can also be counter-productive. Thus, they usually identify areas for improvement to employees in a very supportive approach. The objective is to rectify the deficiency by motivating the employee to change, rather than imposing additional stress on him / her by merely pointing the weakness(s) out.
3.1.3 Job Training Programs
Job training programs provide employees with a broader knowledge and skills enabling them to better handle the expectations from their roles. Employee stress is often caused by the lack of skills or knowledge to meet designated objectives and goals. These programs usually take on two forms – knowledge-based development and skills-based development. Knowledge-based development programs usually involve a conference or seminar where the aim is to broaden the attendees’ knowledge of a certain topic such as infomatics seminar briefing employees on the latest networking technologies. The knowledge gained from such programs may or may not be utilized in the everyday job routines of employees. Alternatively, skill-based development programs focus on training employees to become more proficient in the use of certain behaviours such as assertiveness training. While job training programs can reduce work stress, there are essentially three conditions to its success . First, the job training must be required by the employee. No benefit would be derived if an employee is trained for something that is not relevant to the work he / she performs everyday. Secondly, management must discourage any perception by employees that training programs are a form of reward or punishment, or else the entire purpose of the training initiative would be lost. Finally, preparation is required to benefit fully from the program.
Work stress places a very high toll on both employees and employers. An employee subjected to high levels of stress could experience both physical and mental side-effects. Physical side effects such as hypertension, coronary disease, infections, ulcers could greatly decrease the lifespan of the person. The psychological effects such as repressed emotions, anger, and isolation have a direct negative impact on organizational productivity. Thus, organizations have a great responsibility in reducing the stress of their employees, and in general be concerned about their well-being.
There are numerous methods to counter the stress problem. The report has cited only the basics which are applicable to most organizations. The first step for management is to set out the intention to reduce employee stress in as an organizational goal. Provisions detailing the organization’s planned approach should be drafted.
Informing employees of management’s expectations is one method to reduce a large portion of the anxiety employees may have about their jobs. Secondly, management must provide subordinates feedback on their performance. Management should also provide job training for all employees to enable them to better perform their jobs and reduce the stress associated with the feeling of inadequacy to perform one’s duties.