The Other Big Epidemic: Workplace stress and the role of leadership in mitigating it

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Year 2060.

Reviewing headlines and history books, 2020 appears like the year of the first major pandemic of the 21st century. However, behind it, the reality is that COVID-19 has impacted on many more aspects than health and the economy, which will mark the social revolution of the coming years.

The fact is that 2020 is also the year in which we are forced to rethink and reconsider established dogmas that “have always been like this.”

On a work level, we are considering for the first time in a long time, paradigms of work that we have fully internalized and which we are becoming aware that must be changed or adapted. For example office vs. home office, focus on schedules vs. objectives, and of course, the meaning of work as it fits into our way of life.

Crisis equals opportunity.

The reality is that we are beginning to realize that well-being plays a fundamental role in our lives and should not become a consequence of a continuous race forward.

Reviewing the concept of Workplace Wellness

Although many organizations are aware of this, the reality is that what used to be a bet on the future, has now become a central axis in the strategy of people in any organization that wants to survive competitively.

In fact, the International Labor Organization mentions that in terms of Employee Engagement, the Welfare dimension has a direct relationship with aspects such as efficiency or productivity.

Reviewing all the factors that affect well-being in an organization, in recent years, mostly focused on building more inclusive, diverse, and egalitarian workplaces, putting the focus on all kinds of “Diversity & Inclusion” initiatives.

However, if anything has brought the current pandemic back to the fore, it is the other major epidemic that has been with us for too long: workplace stress.

Stress should never have been “the new normal”.

The Stress Epidemic

Every year, 120,000 people die just in the United States from direct causes related to work stress. However, workplace stress is so common that we have made it fit to a “new normal”.

As we mentioned earlier, the pandemic has caused us to rethink various aspects of our well-being, and work-related stress plays a transversal role in this, affecting all strata.

At Happyforce, through our indicators we have been able to observe in this study carried out during the first half of 2020, that due to the current situation, 50% of employees express high levels of workplace stress, confirming what other medically oriented studies identify as high or moderate stress.

Preventing instead of healing

As individuals, when we meet a friend, family member or an acquaintance who claims to be stressed, what is usually our response?

“Just Rest / Relax / Disconnect” towards workplace stress.

which means that with our response, we are applying a remedy to a disease that has already occurred, which does not address the cause.

In our role as people leaders, whatever they may be (HR, manager, management, team leader, etc.), we have a responsibility to protect the well-being of our employees and colleagues.

That being the case,

What can we do to anticipate and mitigate work-related stress?

Both in our study and in the literature, the major sources of stress in a generic way are those related to:

Control, projection and recognition.

Understanding control as the capacity of autonomy in how to perform work, several studies confirm that those employees who perceive or suffer a high demand in their work but have limited autonomy in how to perform it, are more likely to suffer stress, in addition to it affecting their motivation.

Therefore, the first mitigation strategies for managers and people in charge, is to do everything possible to increase the feeling of control of employees:

  • Empowering or being inclusive with them in making decisions that affect how they do their work.
  • Helping them develop work strategies that reduce multi-tasking so that they can focus on one task at a time, eliminating distractions and frenetic thinking.
  • Limiting unplanned extra hours.

On the other hand, people need opportunities to advance, to grow, to develop our skills, and also to be recognized. That is why as managers we must:

  • Adequately and continuously recognize employees. At Happyforce we have already talked about this, highlighting the impact it has.
  • Promote opportunities or plans with which employees can perceive that their efforts will result in progress, and that they will be up to the challenges.
  • Become a mentor: Accompany them and create environments for them to further develop their skills. Encouraging mastery is one of the basic pillars of Motivation 3.0.

Lack of social support.

People who have a support network are more confident in dealing with and anticipating stress, which is especially important in the work environment.

That is why:

  • The first step is to listen, and encourage a culture of feedback. Stress is aggravated by silence, so as managers we must first learn to listen and create a safe environment where employees can seek help or express themselves freely.
  • Continually encourage a team atmosphere by creating opportunities for employees to interact with each other. It is not relevant if they are team building activities or any other less corporate situation. A laugh among colleagues can work wonders.
  • Always protect the spirit of cooperation and respect at work. The first step is to be an example because feeling respected and respecting others creates unity and generates relationships of trust.

Trust is the basis of a positive work environment, which is the main weapon against the negative effects of stress.

Low alignment (objectives, vision, purpose, etc.)

When employees understand the company’s vision, they can see how their efforts fit into the plan making it much easier for them to focus their energies and find meaning in their work.

Again, we are faced with a leader’s greatest responsibility: to communicate:

  • Employees need to know what the company’s goals are and have the opportunity to recognize how their roles contribute to them.

A good way to do this is to reinforce the importance of those roles when employees are recognized.

  • Clearly communicate what each employee’s responsibilities are. Make sure each one has a specific description that he or she has helped define. This same description will help the employee grow.

Tools, resources and environment.

Stress is the physical and emotional response that occurs when the requirements of the job are not commensurate with the capabilities, resources, or needs of the employee. Therefore, if we expect anyone to perform a task without the necessary resources, we will be contributing to making them feel more stressed. That is why it is always necessary:

  • It is our responsibility to ensure that the work that is assigned or delegated can be done with the tools and resources available to employees. The opposite generates frustration.
  • Invest in the education and continuous training of employees. When hiring, it is a requirement, but when it comes to keeping employees, it is an obligation.
  • Ask older employees to train new ones; this will increase morale, and help transfer knowledge.

Salary and Benefits.

Finally, salary and benefits are one of the causes of generation of labor stress. However, the source of the problem is usually not a low salary, but how it is determined, and whether the process is fair. Once again, we are faced with a problem of communication and transparency that can be solved:

  • Define a meaningful and explainable compensation plan before you start communicating with your employees about wages.

If you’re in HR, make sure your managers have access to that information, so they have enough tools in the conversations. Avoid «I can’t raise your salary because HR won’t let me».

  • Remember that today more than ever employees have enough tools to determine if their salary is adequate in the market, therefore, having an honest conversation about salary does not have to be forbidden. In fact, it can make the difference between whether an employee feels valued or not.
  • Remember that benefits also have a positive impact on equity theory. In fact, several studies show that benefits beyond salary directly impact on employee engagement.

These benefits are not just meal tickets, health insurance, etc. They are flexibility, conciliation policies, etc.

Workplace Stress: These are times of change

Workplace stress is more than a consequence that affects individuals: it is often a symptom of deficiencies in the management and organization of work, as well as poor management of expectations that affect the psychological contract between employees and organizations.

In other words: to a malfunctioning of the organization.

Referring to the initial reflection of this entry, 2020 will demolish old dogmas leaving obsolete any organization that leaves for later what was previously planned because now, they are already new realities.

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