Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Human Resource professional that went something like this. “For the past five years, on our employee engagement surveys there is a clear message about the stress in the workplace.” In that survey, employees were asked questions such as:
- Choose the adjectives that best describes the culture of the organization
- People who are successful in the organization (choice of options)
The HR professional continued: “The results have shown consistently that the culture is ‘intense’ and ‘stressful’. Employees are successful when they ‘are able to deal well with stress’.” She concluded: “Looks like we need some stress management programs. Can you help us?”
My immediate reaction to this was, yes we can help. But providing stress management programs, while it is an approach, may not address the underlying issues.
Too often we see the symptoms and attempt to address them without understanding what is really causing those symptoms. We don’t want to just put a Band-Aid on the problem. That won’t resolve the underlying problem and in some cases, it might end up being seen by employees as placating their needs and interests.
What we really wanted to understand in this environment is what is going on that causes employees to say the workplace is stressful and intense. When these are words used to describe the culture of the organization, we must first understand what are the norms and behaviors in the workplace. Here are some typical causes of stress in the workplace:
- Unreasonable work demands such as when managers respond to emails outside of business hours and on weekends, and expect employees respond to those emails.
- Lack of role clarity. Are job responsibilities clear or is there a continual adding new responsibility to a person’s job?
- Low levels of recognition and reward. How often is appreciation shown to the workforce for their efforts?
- Lack of regular, clear and consistent communication. Is the rumor mill the only way employees find out what is going on in the workplace?
- Long and unpredictable work hours.
- Lack of job security.
By understanding the norms and behaviors in the workplace, we can better understand what is the right approach to solving the problem. In the case of the human resource manager in the stressful work environment, employees really wanted to have more flexibility in their work schedules. This policy change fosters autonomy and gives employees the feeling they are being heard.
Sure, we might also provide support in teaching stress resiliency and skill building. But we first look for the cause, without just treating the symptom.