These costs are increasing year on year – and they are just the direct costs. The cost in terms of reduced effectiveness and diminished creativity are unquantifiable, but even more significant.
Does reading this make you feel stressed? Probably, and you may be assuming that the rest of this article will go on to explain how we should all work fewer hours and have spas in the basement. Well, it’s not going to.
Research has failed to prove any statistical link between long hours and stress. Lack of work autonomy, limited learning opportunities, unsupportive work supervision and scheduling inflexibility are much more important influences.
People experience stress when they are led inconsistently, when there is a lack of clarity in what they are meant to be doing, or a lack of alignment of their work with what is important to them. It is stressful to know you are being kept in the dark on issues; to have two bosses sending you in different directions; or to have little sense of the purpose.
But, stress is also important as a positive energiser. Many thrive on it. The best organisations thrive on the energy created when people are pushed out of their comfort zones to learn and to grow. Indeed, learning can be highly energising or very stressful. It is important that people are developed in ways that recognise their individual learning styles.
To grow, we need to be both challenged and supported. With challenge but no support, work may be scary and stressful. With support but no challenge, work may be smothering and dull. How much challenge each person needs, against how much support, varies enormously. A prime aim of any personal development is to increase the capacity to take on challenges.
How can this support be provided? By giving people the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings without fear of damaging their credibility.
People need to be able to learn, to make the odd mistake, to reflect on it and to take the learning from it.
For someone to be able to admit that they feel anxious, excited or overwhelmed means that they know their emotional state and trust those around them.
Both factors increase effectiveness and reduce stress.
Organisations need to acknowledge the importance of this kind of support.
Work has become increasingly complex. There are few environments where a steady state is the norm. Those at the top are often on the limit of their understanding of what will happen next.
In managing stress, we need to recognise that, while there are general patterns, different people find different things stressful. Some people find holidays stressful. Presentations, travel, noisy environments are just some of the things that individuals respond to very differently.
It is therefore vital to understand individuals and their values, and stressors.
It is helpful if people believe that they have a choice about how they feel. For example, if you are stuck on a train and delayed for an important meeting, there appears to be little you can do. You may be able to phone ahead, but aside from that, you probably just have to wait it out.
But you do have a choice about how you respond to it. You can choose to allow yourself to get all worked up and imagine all the disasters that will result. You are then likely to arrive at the meeting feeling very on edge.
Alternatively you can choose to spend the time enjoying an extra half hour of reading, thinking or relaxing. You are then more likely to arrive in a constructive frame of mind. How we choose to respond to external stressors is entirely up to us, and if we know and believe this fact, it can be very liberating.
At an organisational level, there are many steps that can be taken to reduce stress. We can train staff to take greater control of the things they can change and to save themselves the frustration of trying to change the things they cannot. We can make it safer for people to take on challenging roles. This could include peer group support or coaching by internal trained mentors or external professional coaches.
Coaching works by providing a space for people to reflect on their work; to define desired outcomes; to identify routes to achieve these, to build resilience; to explore and eliminate personal barriers; and to increase effectiveness. Coaches are trained to do this by asking powerful questions and by providing both challenges and support.
Organisations can reduce the negative stressors. For example, giving more flexibility; designing work so there is greater autonomy; providing good quality supervision; teaching anyone in a man management position some coaching skills; communicating well on the things that matter to people; and having two-way communication so that you know what does matter.
Stress is a vital part of our working lives. It energises us, yet it can sap us too. Giving people safe space and support to explore their anxieties and other feelings at work is key to reducing the very real stresses inherent in all our chaotic working lives. This is essential if people are to step out of a confined comfort zone and grow their skills, and their capacity for coping with stress itself.
Organisations that recognise stress and deal with it effectively see, not only a reduction in absenteeism and stress-related illnesses, but an increase in motivation, energy, achievement and personal growth.