Replace Stress Management with Best Management

A company’s health isn’t measured on profit and ROI alone. Employee health also determines how well the business will perform. But traditional wellness programs are falling flat when it comes to alleviating job-induced stressors.A company’s health isn’t measured on profit and ROI alone. Employee health also determines how well the business will perform. But traditional wellness programs are falling flat when it comes to alleviating job-induced stressors.
In the first of a 4-part Beyond Health Habits series, workforce sustainability expert Bob Merberg dives into job stress and its impact on employee health. And, more importantly, what HR professionals can do to address work factors that negatively affect employee well-being.

What is Job Stress?

Merberg defines stress as “the harm caused by an imbalance of job demands and the resources to meet those demands.”
Indeed, Joel Goh from Harvard Business School and Jeffrey Pfeffer from Stanford Business School published a report1 on the relationship between workplace stressors, mortality, and healthcare costs. They found that low control in the workplace was associated with a 40% or greater risk of premature mortality, more than 20% higher risk of being diagnosed with a chronic illness, and a more than 40% risk of self-reported mental and physical health issues.

How Costly is Job Stress?

According to an in-depth survey by Mental Health America (MHA), job stress costs businesses $500 billion in lost productivity annually. Employers are burdened with health care costs, disability leave, absenteeism, turnover, and lower productivity. So, what can be done to make workplaces mentally healthier?

Wellness Programs aren't Enough

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) considers typical "wellness" programs to be inadequate because they ignore the contribution of work on health and focus primarily on reducing medical costs.
NOISH cautions:

“A program that considers the workplace as just a platform (as opposed to being a risk factor itself) to improve employee health can be successful only if it makes the health of the worker, as a worker, the centerpiece of its efforts.”

While resilience and mindfulness training are promoted as go-to solutions for stress management, these strategies have limitations. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (their equivalent of OSHA), these programs don’t address the causes of job stress.

Start with Good Job Design

Job design has a critical impact on employee job stress. So begin by assessing these four risk factors:

  1. Demands
  2. Autonomy or control
  3. Role
  4. Support

If an employee’s job has low autonomy, high demand, unclear roles, and weak support, then the stress they experience can lead to near- and long-term health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, anxiety, and burnout. On top of that, over-stressed employees are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors and wellness programs such as exercise and a balanced diet.
Now, let's look closer at each risk factor as well as "best management" practices you can apply to promote employee well-being.

1. Demands

High demands aren’t the enemy here. Bad stress happens when an employee lacks the resources to meet high demands. Some examples of stressful demands are work overload, boring or repetitive tasks or duties, long hours rendered or chronically doing this, and not taking lunch breaks and/or vacation leaves.
We need to see demands as conditions that cost energy and resources. To remove the stress from demands, you need to give, save, or restore this energy. Think of ideas or policies that will encourage employees to rest and recharge. Some of the best management practices that increase employee resources and save their energy are:

  • Identifying when resources are needed and getting those resources
  • Understanding team member abilities and providing training
  • Rotating boring tasks or undesirable responsibilities

2. Control or autonomy

Provide employees with a say about how they do their work. This includes small but impactful matters such as scheduling, how they approach the work, and specific tasks. Autonomy also includes their decision making power over aspects affecting their work.
The importance of employee input is one of the most common findings in job stress research. Their participation in matters that directly affect them prevents stress. You’ll want to keep following these best management practices to ensure responsible, stress-free employee autonomy:

  • Avoid micromanagement
  • Listen to employees
  • Involve employees in decision making
  • Give employees time for development or to attend training

3. Role

When asked what stresses employees about their job, many of them give an answer related to their role. Not knowing what’s expected of them, not having a clear explanation of the job or their job description, or not knowing the job’s purpose or how it fits in the big picture increases stress. A lack of knowledge also stems from getting different directions from multiple managers and their co-workers.
We’ve all probably dealt with this at one or several times in our careers. It doesn’t help when a company’s goals are always changing and one’s role constantly shifts with it. There are also issues regarding how fit a person is for the job itself.
Role spill-over is another source of stress. Non-work roles interfere with job duties or when the work itself interferes with the employee’s personal life. In other words, the employee’s work-life balance is disrupted.
Address these role-related stress factors with the following management practices:

  • Keep employees informed about the big picture
  • Agree on clear goals
  • Give clear definitions of their roles and the corresponding expectations
  • Open lines of communication
  • Avoid contradictory instructions

4. Support

Support covers social aspects at work, such as support from co-workers, having a friend at work, being part of a group, having someone you can confide in regarding personal or professional matters, and support from managers and the entire organization.
The following management practices create a supportive environment among employees:
• Recognize good work• Lead a no-blame culture• Respect employee confidentiality• Deal with encouraging interaction or work-life balance

Job Design Sustainability

Initiatives like employee engagement or training and development may seem like concrete ways to address these work factors. But you need to remember that reducing stress isn’t on the same level as providing a random fitness program for the sake of a work-life balance workshop.
You need to continually sustain the effort by working with managers on employee demands, autonomy, support, and roles. They need to understand that these factors are the underpinnings of employee well-being and productivity. Similar to a regular wellness program, you need several things in place to produce any real effect.

Real World Example

Bob Merberg references a large insurance company that tackled stress head-on after suffering from increasing absences due to stress. They introduced a new stress policy, which entailed an assessment of stress causes within the company. Focus groups and teams reviewed the assessment results and made the appropriate recommendations.
Based on their findings, they took these actions:

  • Multiple trainings were offered to raise awareness about how to deal with and manage stress.
  • A shadowing program was put in place to increase employees’ knowledge of each other’s roles and responsibilities.

The result? The company cut their stress-related sickness days by 33% in the first year after the stress intervention.

Keep on Keeping On

The process of preventing stress is not just about managing it or becoming hardened to it.
Merberg concludes that prevention involves a systematic approach that includes the assessment of the four risk factors, engaging employees in a participatory approach, and then matching the interventions to the problems identified in the assessment.
Don't expect a turnkey solution to job stress. There needs to be a genuine commitment from company leadership. Start small, and from there, you can make a difference for your organization and employees. Address the management practices that affect stress and well-being, and from there the facts will be on your business’ side.

1 Goh, Joel, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios. “The relationship between workplace stressors and mortality and health costs in the United States.” Management Science 62.2 (2015): 608-628


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