Workplace stress and anxiety are generally not good things, no matter what anyone tells you!
I know there are some who believe that a certain level of stress, or as they usually call it, “motivation,” is a good thing. And if I interpret them loosely, I can see the point. You need to be motivated. Stress, anxiety and fear are good motivators, at least for a while. They’ve pushed people to do things they didn’t want to for thousands of years!
But as psychologist and others who study human beings will tell you, these “stick” type motivators bring as much baggage as they do benefits. There’s no question that long-term stress can impact both performance and lives negatively. Like an automobile engine forced beyond safe limits, we can maintain that unnatural level for a while…but then we explode, burnout or give up. Chronic stress, anxiety and fear can bring a short-term pickup, but in the long run they’re not good. They can bring on what I call “workplace PTSD.”
I am not reducing the catastrophic seriousness of post-traumatic stress disorder due to combat or other forms of violence. But we’ve also learned that psychological violence causes real trauma as well. And a number of studies have shown that staff effectiveness and efficiency was seriously impacted by chronic workplace stress.
A key word here is “chronic.” Human beings are amazingly resilient, but if they feel trapped when they face a lose-lose situation for too long. If there doesn’t appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel, most of us will go into a shell. In the workplace, the result can be an employee who is going through the motions and not performing up to their potential. This can happen at nearly every level of the workforce.
I worked with one small business where the owner/manager was an extremely driven personality. He thought nothing of working until late at night, even past midnight, especially as a deadline approached. Not surprisingly, he expected his staff to extend their efforts as well. What probably added to these problems, and compounded the stress on staff, was a seeming lack of planning. Even things that might have been completed in advance were delayed so that these deadline periods sometimes became several days of virtual “all nighters.”
The telltale signal was a high turnover rate among employees, including upper level staff members who were hard to replace. Equally significant, new staff often joined the firm, which has a good outside “brand,” with a visible level of excitement then, after 90 to 120 days, they start looking like a deer in the headlights.
Good managers are increasingly aware of these issues. They don’t wait to act until staff members start suffering. They keep an eye out for problems that can lead to stress before it causes problems.
Addressing stress probably won’t be the most pleasant management duty. If nothing else, the challenges can be somewhat complex, but it is critical to eliminate any major issues possible. Sometimes it’s as simple as adjusting a areas so high- and low-demand periods or projects are better balanced.
Other factors behind stress are more traditional: are expectations and responsibilities clear for individual team members? Are goals and deadlines realistic and achievable? Even rats in a maze will give up if it becomes obvious that they simply can’t win.
Policies and job descriptions are relevant. If a staff member has a number of duties formally outlined, and then new office requirements are added, it’s easy for that individual to become overloaded or be required to perform tasks for which they are not equipped or authorized. There are a number of variations to this dilemma, but if it’s been a while since you took a hard look at such issues, you may be building unnecessary stress into your office.
If periods of pressure bring stress but can be easily balanced, consider creating peak shifts where certain staff members are on call for set periods. It’s even possible that some of your staff members want or need some extra time, and if you can identify enough of these as on-call staffers to cover a period of high workload, that may help your workplace in several ways.
And don’t forget stress at the top of your organization. Some owners and managers fall into a macho mentality and think they handle stress when in fact they just take it out on everyone else, contaminating their workplace environment. Everything from a “personal day” or other break, even a 20-minute down time at the office, can help fight stress. Every workplace and every individual has different ways to deal with stress, just make certain that you and your workplace do!