Don’t let workplace stress undermine your operations.
By William J. Lynott
Workplace stress can simmer just beneath the surface, eating away at morale, productivity and profits. And if you think that workplace stress doesn’t exist in your business, think again.
“Emotional pain exists in every organization at some point, and it takes a heavy toll,” says Peter J. Frost, former professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
Individual employees or managers often step into stressful work situations to help deal with the pain involved. These “toxic handlers,” as Frost calls them, frequently suffer more emotional and physical damage than the people they are trying to help.
Symptoms of job stress
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), there is a variety of possible symptoms of workplace stress:
Physical: headaches, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, chest pain, shortness of breath, pounding heart, high blood pressure, muscle aches, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, increased perspiration, fatigue, insomnia, frequent illness.
Psychosocial: anxiety, irritability, sadness, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, hypersensitivity, apathy, depression, slowed thinking or racing thoughts; feelings of helplessness, hopelessness or of being trapped.
Behavioral: overeating or loss of appetite, impatience, procrastination, increased use of alcohol or drugs, increased smoking, withdrawal or isolation from others, poor job performance, poor personal hygiene, change in religious practices, change in close family relationships.
Workplace stress, if left untended, eventually can lead to employee turnover, reduced efficiency, illness or even death.
Causes of job stress
Scientific studies suggest that some common working conditions will be stressful to most people, such as unreasonable workloads, uneven or biased treatment by managers and lack of control over working conditions. Frost suggests that there are effective techniques for minimizing the harm of workplace stress and offers these suggestions for anyone taking on the role of “toxic handler”:
Slow down. Symptoms of workplace stress can be overlooked because they present at a slower rate or with a different cadence than the work we do.
Listen. Managers often don’t notice employees’ stress symptoms because they are too busy telling them how to solve the problem. Put your full attention on the person in pain.
Retain your sensitivity. Too often, we miss symptoms in others because we have become numbed by the pace of the competitive business world.
Be confident. Even if we see and feel the pain of workplace stress in others, we may feel that we don’t know what to do about it. Remember that simply being present for someone can help the healing process.
Take action. If there is a cancer in your workplace, perhaps in the form of a toxic employee, it may be necessary to change that employee’s job if you can’t change the behavior—or to let that employee go.
Put people first. Watch for a toxic company policy or practice based solely on numbers and abstractions that overlook the human equation.
Plant seeds. When you see employee stress, or anticipate it due to changes in the workplace, find ways to prepare people to deal with it.
Tips for the toxic handler
When workplace stress rises to the point where damage is being done and productivity starts to decline, someone in the organization usually surfaces as the “toxic handler.” Frost offers these suggestions for the person trying to help:
Leave the job at work. Don’t take the problems home with you.
Stay fit. Drain the physical effects of workplace stress through regular exercise.
Stay positive. Stay aware that you are helping others, and feel good about doing it.
Say “no” more often. Don’t take on every case, and don’t take on the problems of those you are helping.
Create a sanctuary. And be sure to use it frequently.
Give the job a name. This is meaningful work, valuable to the employees you are helping and the health of the workplace.
Put family first. Don’t let workplace stress—yours or your employees’—cut you off from your partner, family and friends.
“There is still much to be learned about toxicity in organizations and how to handle it,” Frost says. “But my vision is for managers and their organizations to take up the challenge to safeguard the health and well-being of their people, and to offer compassion to those who hurt—an effort that is both a noble undertaking and eminently practical.”
By William J. Lynott, a business writer based in Rydal, Pa.