Work stressors lead to increased costs, decreased productivity

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Employees looking for a new job because of workplace stress have plenty of company.

Fifty-two percent of workers say they “have considered or made a decision about their career, including declining a promotion or leaving a job based on workplace stress,” according to the American Psychological Association.

More than half of employees said they were “less productive” at work because of job stress.

The cost of job stress to United States businesses — because of increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, medical, legal and insurance expenses, workers compensation payments and employee turnover — is more than $300 billion annually, according to the American Institute of Stress.

Years ago, a local psychotherapist experienced firsthand the permanent effects of job stress.

Shortly after Neil E. Rand, a management consultant with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and organizational change, began consulting for companies, two key corporate managers died of stress-related heart attacks.

“The effects on their families, co-workers and companies were devastating — something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Stress on the job causes anxiety, anger and defensiveness, and directly affects how people function at work.

“This spreads from person to person,” Rand said, “that’s why I call it an epidemic — it ravages people and companies.”

Soon, irritability, tension and decreased performance are considered normal.

“Then morale goes down, and people are dissatisfied with their job and not motivated to do their job well because they only get disincentives,” he said. “The primary component of stress is fear.”

And that fear comes from a feeling of powerlessness.

“People are afraid about the economy, afraid they’ll lose their jobs, or the company will go under, or they’ll earn less money,” Rand said. “And there’s nothing they can do about it — so they walk around with this fear and then anger over their powerlessness.”

To illustrate how fear pervades thinking — even when it’s not realistic, Rand gives the example of “people who would rather spend a year cleaning toilets with a toothbrush than speak in public.”

It’s the fear of worst-case-scenario and what “might” happen that causes stress.

“Emotional fear is what you may feel or experience as a result of losing your job — but people carry around reactions (to something that has not or may not happen) of sadness, grief, depression and despair,” Rand said. “The speech will be over in 10 or 20 minutes, but they’re afraid something humiliating will happen — and they carry that around for decades.”

So when people are afraid about losing their jobs, the stress is magnified and can be all-consuming. And most people are not aware that many physical symptoms are caused by the stress they’re feeling.

Work stress is exacerbated by the cycle of stress: emotional stress and physical symptoms distract people and affects decision making and productivity.

Physical symptoms caused by mental, emotional and psychological stress include: headaches, stomach pain, intestinal problems, tension in neck and back, muscle tension, insomnia, fatigue, grinding teeth, change in appetite, feeling dizzy and other symptoms.

Ongoing stress causes entire companies to be less productive, “as each individual becomes focused on survival rather than focused on company goals,” Rand said. “Information flow suffers, work relationships — which are critical — suffer, and things that need to be communicated are not.”

Lonely at the top?

And when company presidents, or business owners/managers are stressed, it causes what Rand calls the “cascade effect.”

If the boss is irritable, abrasive or has a negative attitude when interacting with an employee, then the employee is likely to unload his or her fearful and angry feelings from such an encounter onto the next person. And they, too, in turn, are unproductive for the rest of the day.

Rand’s advice to owners/managers for alleviating stress is to “clear the underlying core of false negative beliefs that they have about themselves and their employees (‘they can’t do it right’) because this filter changes their perception of reality and makes business and outcomes seem more negative than they are. They should replace their negative beliefs with what’s real — not Pollyanna, but real.”

“Managers should focus on what’s more creative and take steps to bring their lives into balance and trust others,” he said. “Delegating is a major (component) of trust. And learning to delegate is a major factor in stress reduction. If you feel they can’t do it, then get them the training — and trust them to do it their own way.”

Trusting employees is scary for business owners and managers, but that’s part of shifting one’s perception from fear to reality.

“I work with a lot of company presidents, and their perception is that they’re alone — feeling unsupported is a major contributor to their stress,” Rand said.

But when leaders believe that “it’s lonely at the top” and no one else understands their vision or what they are doing or how hard they work — then they only hear complaints.

“Their filter screens out any positive feedback from clients and employees,” Rand said.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2007 Stress in America survey, 77 percent of people surveyed report experiencing physical symptoms of stress, and 73 percent experience psychological symptoms (irritability, anger, feeling nervous, lack of energy, feeling on the verge of tears) due to stress.

And 48 percent report lying awake at night because of stress.

Until there is change from the top down — organizational change and stress management techniques — many companies will founder in a sea of despair and negativity.

“Some employers assume that stressful working conditions are a necessary evil — that companies must turn up the pressure on workers and set aside health concerns to remain productive and profitable in today’s economy,” according to a report by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “But research findings challenged this belief. Studies show that stressful working conditions are actually associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs — all of which have a negative effect on the bottom line.”