If you are like most people, you are experiencing more daily stress than ever. You are also more likely to be working longer and harder than in previous years. We can blame the staffing shortages, working from home, and technological advances for some of the added stress. But, if we're honest, much more is happening here. The pursuit of happiness has led to over-scheduled calendars, feelings of inadequacy, and less time for meaningful relationships. Businesses need to think holistically about stress in the workplace. Costs estimated in the trillions are not limited to those who experience unhealthy stress. This complexity can confuse leaders about how to best respond while employees, businesses, and communities suffer. What's the answer? Here are ten factors that can create stress and one step leaders can take to make a better workplace.
Why understanding workplace stress is important
The right amount of stress is proven to enhance performance and wellbeing. However, too little stress leads to boredom and depression, and too much stress leads to anxiety and health problems. Unhealthy levels of stress at the organizational level are linked to reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and higher turnover.
A recent global workforce study by Gallup revealed that stress in the workplace is at an all-time high, and 60% of employees are unwilling or unable to connect with others. Emotional detachment in the workplace leaves employees feeling numb and makes the leadership challenge of creating and maintaining high-quality leader-follower relationships difficult.
The following is a different perspective on the costs of workplace stress from a relationship manager for high-net-worth individuals.
The American Association of Psychology polled more than 1500 employees in the US and found:
87% believe their employer can take action to improve their mental health
59% experienced adverse impacts of work-related stress
44% intend to leave their current company in the next year
21% had a hard time focusing at work
“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called everybody.” George Carlin
The costs of workplace stress and burnout are severe for individuals and organizations. Manufacturing organizations like General Motors report spending more on healthcare than on raw materials for their products.
A recent study to quantify workplace stress costs found that workplace stressors in the United States account for more than 120,000 deaths annually and approximately 5-8% of annual healthcare costs.
There is a long and rich history of research into workplace factors with the potential to create stress for leaders. Here is a list of ten common stressors:
Role Ambiguity – a common stressor in the workplace is unclear roles and responsibilities. Whether being asked to do more with less or reporting to a new leader, when leaders feel inefficient and are unsure how to prioritize their work it creates stress.
Self-Doubt – questioning your knowledge, skills, and abilities can result in feelings of being a fraud. Getting assigned a task for the first time and not hearing any feedback can amplify these feelings and create anxiety.
Organizational Culture Misalignment – a lack of alignment or conflict between the company and personal values. Mergers and acquisitions can be a common source of this stress. For example, when a company values rapid decision-making and the leader prefers strategic thinking can add misalignment stress.
Expectations Conflict – starting your day and feeling like you cannot win is not a good feeling. When leaders are handed a scorecard that can't be executed with the current team's capabilities it creates stress.
Role Overload – when you are given too much to do and expected to deliver it on time and with high quality is unrealistic and stressful.
Inadequate Resources - is stress from a lack of staff, tools, materials, equipment, information, and other resources needed to complete the job. When budgets get reduced, investments are delayed, and still, expectations are not adjusted, it is common to feel stress from a lack of resources.
Work-Life Boundary Mismanagement - In the distraction economy, many leaders have tossed in the towel on trying to manage work-life boundaries. But evidence suggests that not committing to managing personal and professional expectations leads to increased stress.
Stalled Career – is dissatisfaction with career growth opportunities and a lack of hope for a better future. Role potential stress can lead to increased turnover and decreased workplace effort.
Isolation – when you are on your own and feel disconnected from others it can create a feeling of a lack of support needed to succeed. The opposite is team cohesion. This is when members are committed to one another and collectively to a task, mission, or cause.
Underemployment – feeling like you have more to offer than what the company is currently asking of you. Career transitions, reorganizations, and outsourcing of job responsibilities can leave leaders stressed from wanting more out of their work.
How leaders can start improving workplace stress
Leaders can make a meaningful difference by listening. Being heard is rare, and listening is a life-changing gift every leader can offer.
Effective listening involves verbal, nonverbal, and empathic skills:
Verbal listening uses paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, assumption checking, and questioning skills.
Nonverbal listening refers to body language such as eye contact, leaning forward, and an open body position.
Empathic listening is listening by sensing the explicit and implicit feelings being communicated.
A good starting point is to ask questions grounded in curiosity. In your next one-to-one meeting try asking, what's on your mind? and What else?
If you want to go deeper, using a workplace stress assessment administered by an executive coach can help individual leaders and teams learn good habits and address systemic issues impacting workplace stress.
So, what is the real workplace stress challenge for you and your organization?
APA. (2021). Facing compounding stressors, many American workers plan to change jobs in coming year. American Psychological Association.
Gallup. (2022). State of the global workplace 2022 report. Gallup.
Harms, Zhang, J., & Perrewé, P. L. (2020). Entrepreneurial and small business stressors, experienced stress, and well being. Emerald Publishing Limited.
Joshi. (2005). Stress from burnout to balance. Response Books.
Williams, N. (2016). Top ten types of workplace stress. Bartell and Bartell.