You’re Stressing Me Out

Stress can take its toll on employee wellness and productivity. The learning organization can help mitigate its effects by recognizing and helping to manage the symptoms.

There are a number of ways that workforce stress plays out on an employer’s bottom line. Employers worldwide recognize this and are increasinginvestments to promote employee health and productivity, moving from tactical or individual-based programs to strategic programs that embody a holistic way of thinking about the organization’s health culture.

These are among the findings from Towers Watson & Co.’s “2013/2014 Staying@Work Report: The Business Value of a Healthy Workforce.” Some 892 employers in 15 developed and developing markets around the world shared their lifestyle risk concerns in the study, and stress heads the list, followed by lack of physical activity and obesity.

“Stress can impact employees both physically and in their relationships,” said Dr. Andrew Crighton, chief medical officer at Prudential Financial Inc. He said stress is a leading factor for medical issues. For example, it can cause stomach problems and lead to employees’ missing work. This can strain teams and have a direct effect on organizational effectiveness. “If a team is not functioning at its best because of missing workers, managers sometimes reach out to their HR partners to help identify the root cause,” Crighton said.

Figure 1: Stress Disconnect (Source: Towers Watson, 2013)
Figure 1: Stress Disconnect (Source: Towers Watson, 2013)

One significant challenge the Towers Watson study identified is employees may not be engaged in their own health. Changing employee behavior is the top obstacle to reducing workplace stress, followed closely by a need to change managers’ understanding and behaviors. By collaborating with their HR peers to educate and develop different behaviors, learning leaders can help reduce the costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism and loss of productivity and do much to mitigate the negative consequences associated with too much stress on the job.

A Difference of Opinion
The Towers Watson study also revealed a disconnect between what employers think causes workforce stress and what employees say causes such stress (Figure 1). Tom Davenport, senior consultant with Towers Watson, offered the following disconnects.

Inadequate staffing.Belt-tightening has resulted in downsizing or growth in scope of jobs without additional help. Companies are comfortable asking people to do more with less, but they may not observe the results. Both parties agreed inadequate staffing was a top stressor; it was No. 1 on the employee list andNo. 2 on the employer list. Training in priority assessment and change management may be important offerings.

Low pay/increases. This indicates employers are not attuned to the stress it causes employees to work longer and harder without adequate financial rewards. “Employers calibrate pay against the market and think they’re doing fine,” Davenport said. “They’re not looking at the whole reward portfolio; is it areasonable return on the employee’s investment of time andeffort?” This was high on the employee list — No. 2  — but employers have it pegged at No. 9. Financial education may help employees find solutions.

Unclear job expectations. This was No. 3 on the employee list, but not on employers’ radar at all. In a scenario where attrition and redistribution of work balloons employees’ job responsibilities/accountabilities without adequately addressing priorities, getting it all done is not a realistic possibility. Employers too often think the redistribution — or the “what” — is the answer, but employees are looking for the “how.”

One organization that addresses the “how” of work is The Container Store, which uses its Foundation Principles rather than an inflexible procedure manual to guide decision-making. “The Container Store’s seven Foundation Principles articulate our philosophies for hiring, training, selling and service, business partner relationships, merchandise assortment, communication and store environment,” said Eva Gordon, the company’s vice president of stores, training and development and recruiting

Building a Foundation

In 1988, The Container Store chairman and CEO Kip Tindell shared some fundamental business philosophies about treating employees, customers, vendors and the community with respect and dignity. This led to the development of the company’s seven Foundation Principles.

These principles create a framework of clear guidelines for actions and decisions that provide the ‘how’ to everyone from sales clerks to the CEO. The guidelines cover such situations as how to handle a return, how to navigate the economic climate and more. “The seven Foundation Principles are each a key ingredient in our ‘recipe’ for success,” said Eva Gordon, The Container Store’s vice president of stores, training and development and recruiting. “We truly believe if you removed any one of them, then our ‘recipe’ would not work. We don’t hang a plaque of our Foundation Principles in a hallway of our home office or our stores. We keep our Foundation Principles alive by reflecting on them, talking about them, and most importantly, actively using them to guide our decisions and initiatives.”

She said whether it involves a store employee, one in a distribution center or the home office there is a strong consistency in viewpoint and language, and leaders are passionate and diligent about ensuring that every employee has the information and training to understand how to live the organization’s Foundation Principles day to day in their role.

These principles promote business alignment, and they are one reason behind The Container Store being named as one of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For for 15 consecutive years.

—Donna Parrey

Organizational culture. This could involve a lack of teamwork, avoiding accountability or a tendency to assign blame. This was No. 4 on the employee list, while employers thought it is a lower priority at No. 8. It is a further indication of the chaotic state that can evolve when “How do I get things done?” is not answered. To create the right culture, leaders need to emphasize and provide vehicles for clear communication with surviving personnel when downsizings occur. Learning leaders can help by ensuring that managers have access to training on the nuances of difficult communications, with emphasis on listening skills and consistent messaging.

Work/life balance. Employers say this is the No. 1 cause of workforce stress, while it’s No. 5 on theemployee list. This suggests employers are attuned to the fact that time demands can interfere with family life. Employees, on the other hand, may have become accustomed to juggling such demands and may point, instead, to staffing, pay and unclear job expectations as the real stress culprits. This could also reflect employees’ unwillingness to admit their personal lives — time requirements, kids’ activities, personal relationships, personal finances, aging parents’ health — are taking a toll on their ability to do their job.

Take It Down a Notch
To understand overall health, Crighton said to look at five dimensions: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial and social. “At Prudential Financial, we coined the term ‘work-life effectiveness’ to describe what we seek, as we know that one sometimes crowds out the other.”

To reduce employee stress levels, an organization must first understand its health environment profile. Prudential Financial has conducted a health riskappraisal annually since 2007. It’s how the organization learned that employee stress is a chief driver of health risks. Stress was always of interest, but quantitative data from the appraisal showed the company where to focus its attention.

For instance, sometimes things happen outside of work that spill over into the workplace. Domesticviolence is one of those issues, which led to PrudentialFinancial’s involvement in the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence.

Further, there is a difference between good stress, or eustress, and bad stress, or distress. Davenport of Towers Watson said there are four criteria that energize workers and influence how managers work their people.

1. Calibrated challenge: Set up a challenge with enough uncertainty, yet reasonable demands; this energizes engaged workers.

2. Resources and support: Provide an energy buffer against stress, such as a supervisor to answer questions, a team to pitch in, a computer that works, and freedom from politics; this replenishes “mental juice.”

3. Autonomy: Allow employees self-determination to choose how, when and where to work; this does not mean total freedom but having an understanding with their managers of choice that balance individual freedom with the need to get specific work done.

4. Return on investment in work: Create the proper relationship between effort and return/rewards such as career development options, recognition, esteem and nonfinancial rewards.

One Webcast at a Time

In 2007, Prudential Financial Inc. created PruTube, a video magazine with weekly segments on a variety of issues. A segment was devoted to domestic violence and one employee chose to share her story, which allowed the organization to reinforce the variety of resources available to employees.

In October 2014, the organization held a town hall webcast on partner violence and domestic violence. Three employees told how they successfully extracted themselves from situations and flourished. Some 20,000 employees have access to such webcasts.

“Stress is present in the workplace, regardless of whether it is work-related or not work-related,” said the company’s chief medical officer, Dr. Andrew Crighton.

To combat this particular source of stress, the organization is actively involved in the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence.

—Donna Parrey


First-line managers need to know their employees well so they can identify when they appear unusually stressed. However, that doesn’t mean a manager has to be a clinician to address stress. “Some may not feel it’s a role they can handle, but our ethics training at Prudential Financial reinforces that it is their role,” Crighton said. He said managers don’t need to know all the details, but they need to understand their teams, talk to employees and ensure workers know about available resources.

The prevailing outlook in business today is that stress is a given, and Davenport said most employers hold the employee responsible. “ ‘Here’s a program for you to stop smoking; get your blood sugar down; exercise; meditate.’ But employers should be spending more on developing managers, such as in helping them to offer the four components of the good stress formula.” He said learning leaders should build this into manager training so they can understand what it takes to create an environment that reflects the four areas of good stress.

Coaching programs can be an effective way to help individuals and managers alleviate stress levels. For example, Prudential Financial uses life coaches to help employees with finances and budgets. The company outsources its Employee Assistance Program but houses a behavioral health group on-site and does coaching. Its health and wellness group has used focus groups to get people to open up about their problems.

Managers are coached to look at work flow and determine how to do things more efficiently. For instance, the company used its behavioral health team to interview call center managers about employee absences and then had separate meetings with employees. “We discovered the problem was more policy-driven than medical,” Crighton said. “The administration of the absence policy was driving extended absences.” The company modified its policy, and the absence rate went down dramatically.

Take It Easier
The American Psychological Association pegs the cost of job stress at some $300 billion per year, offering plenty of opportunity for learning leaders to contribute significantly to its reduction. “We know that high stress creates a situation in which people get sick, and reports of physical symptoms are 30 percent higher when employees are feeling exploited and experiencing job stress,” Davenport said. A heart attack, for example, is an explicit cost, but other results such as absenteeism, presenteeism and high turnover all have a negative effect on an organization’s productivity.

Some industries are more prone to workplace stress than others. For example, health care workers deal with traditional workforce stress along with the stress of dealing with the sick and dying. High-tech industries also experience a different kind of stress that often results in job burnout.

Employee programs can help to address stress, but it’s important for organizations to take a holistic view. Davenport said management behavior is often the No. 1 cause for stress, but most organizations consider stress a given. “They don’t take the organizational perspective and look at themselves,” he said. Learning leaders can hold up the mirror that allows organizations to reflect on how well they are managing workforce stress and its repercussions on the bottom line.