Workplace Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

There are facts and there are fictions in this world of ours, and it’s a fact that it’s a fiction that an employer can save money and benefit the organization by neglecting the psychological needs of its workforce.

The value of looking after one’s employees derives not just from the wisdom of the ounce of prevention equalling the pound of cure. In complicated and time-lagged ways people respond to another’s caring with caring, to generosity with generosity, to effort with effort. People shine and are most likely to bring you their best in a climate of interpersonal acceptance and respect.

That might be all you need to remember and practice to save your business a boat load, but let’s look at some of the details just the same.

The costs of stress are exceptionally difficult to measure thoroughly, but they are clearly well in excess of $12 billion a year in Canada and are estimated to be about $7500 per worker per year in the U.S.

Because most organizations do not have their accounting tuned in to the bottom line costs of employee stress, big financial hits may be taken unknowingly. And the hits can come from many quarters, so to speak, reflecting the diversity of ways in which stress and our mental health affect our functioning. Lost productivity due to sick time, injury and low morale can be considerable.

Stress is the most significant factor driving absenteeism, grievances and (in the USA) worker compensation claims. Under stress and preoccupied with problems, we pay attention more poorly and so become more vulnerable to accidents.

Low morale is associated with higher levels of heart disease and depression. Morale problems can eat holes in motivation and goodwill. Low morale disables efficiency in many ways and increases the likelihood of maladaptive and destructive behaviours, and of poorer workplace relationships and team involvement. Some related workplace conditions such as aggression, bullying and social control are particularly noxious.

And how costly is it when valued and expensively trained but disgruntled employees leave an organization, which then further requires the recruitment and training of replacements?

The research is clear: Workers who feel that their organization is concerned with their well-being will respond with increased citizenship behaviours, enhanced commitment to their work and superior performance. It’s essential for the health of the organization that managers become aware of these contingencies instead of persisting in an alliance with values that are so Charles Dickens.

The idea that an organization is actually a complex, interdependent system is definitely not old school. But it affords a managerial perspective that recommends looking with rapt interest into the psychological health of one’s organization.

A 2010 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology distilled the essential findings of over 200 studies and concluded that, “a supportive environment was the most consistent job resource in terms of explaining variance in burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes”. This finding was consistent across industries.

Contented employees are more productive, reliable and creative. Paying attention to the conditions that give rise to that contentment is a win-win and an advantageous business strategy.

A safer, more motivated and healthier workforce will help everyone sleep better at night, literally and figuratively. With better morale employees are more flexible around change and more likely to cooperate to help the common good.

A Gallup study concluded that, “If workers’ emotional needs are met, they become engaged with their companies, and their productivity, profitability, retention rate, and safety rate increase. They even get sick less often.” Otherwise, ‘Nice doing business to you’ might be the message employees get from their workplace.