Managerial Approaches to Stress Management

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss job design and other managerial approaches to stress management

When we talked about individuals exercising time management techniques as a way of achieving a better work-life balance, we mentioned flexibility and the ability to allocate 50% of their day to the unpredictable, unplanned part of their days. Could managers be stepping in and proactively addressing those 20 hours of a worker’s week that are made up of unplanned emergencies?

In her 2015 article “Time Management Training Doesn’t Work,” for Harvard Business Review, productivity expert Maura Thomas suggests that an employee’s problem is not just getting distracted from work but getting distracted from work by other work. Workers are sitting down to thoughtful tasks and being lured away by client emails, experiencing a new interruption every few minutes and working at a frantic pace. “Managing your time” used to be synonymous with “managing your attention,” but the workplace doesn’t function like that anymore. Time management training needs to change with the times.

Thomas suggests that, rather than training individuals on time management techniques, managers should spend more time on clarity around role priorities rather than specific task priorities.

Person writing in a plannerWhen managers can make clear to an employee what the expectations of his role are and how they match up with the priorities of the company, the employee can gain a new clarity on how to prioritize incoming work. Job design, its initial conception and its constant evaluation, are important in managing workplace stress.

Job design is also key in motivating employees. Skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback are all components that should be considered when designing a job, no matter how complicated or repetitive the job might be. Job design should reinforce the effort-to-performance link on the expectancy framework.

If job design provides the challenge that motivates an employee, it can also tip the scales toward stress. Managers can reevaluate job design to ensure that expectations for the role don’t exceed the employee’s abilities. They can, as Thomas pointed out above, also reduce role ambiguity by aligning employees around company objectives and helping them prioritize need-to-do tasks over day-to-day minutiae.

While certain jobs are more stressful than others—consider an air traffic controller’s daily stress versus that of a clerical worker—individual responses to stress are also very specific to an employee’s personality. Managers should take into consideration how an individual might adapt to a high-stress role during the selection and placement process. Does this person have a strong internal locus of control? Previous experience is often a good indicator of a potential employee’s suitability.

Another motivating factor for employees is goal-setting. Individuals should have specific, measurable goals that they can achieve if they stretch themselves. Managers should take care that they’re achieving good, and not bad, levels of stress when working with employees to set goals. Goals that tie into company objectives work to clarify role responsibilities, and managers who review their employees’ progress can protect them from demotivation and stress.

Finally, there’s the managerial option of job redesign to help with stress management. Redesigning jobs to make them richer for the employees can alleviate stress and add new motivation. A job redesign that gives the team member more responsibility, more say in decisions that involve them, and more meaningful work can give an employee more control over work activities and lessen his reliance on others.

But what about the effects of an organization’s culture on stress levels? Some organizations expect an employee to put in far more than the standard 40 hours of work in a week. Employees feel an increasing need to stay connected to email and voice mail when not in the office, and often their managers expect to be able to contact them by phone or text well after working hours. International companies expect employees to navigate time differences, and employees in the US find themselves staying at work late or coming in early to have necessary conversations with Europe and Asia.

Learn More: Eric Garton

The Harvard Business Review featured an article written by Eric Garton, author of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. In “Employee Burnout is a Problem with the Company, not the Person,” Garton cited a couple of burnout-inducing practices that are driven by an organization’s culture:

Excessive collaboration

Garton cites this as a “common ailment in organizations with too many decision makers and too many decision-making nodes.” This flaw in organizational structure and culture leads to too many meetings and phone calls trying to align every possible stakeholder around a particular decision. This issue leads to “task switching” which, unlike multi-tasking, requires an employee to switch to a new task while in the middle of another, costing time and energy and resulting in additional stress.

The solution to excessive collaboration, Garton suggests, is an adjustment of organizational structure and “nodes,” which are the intersections of an organizational structure where a decision maker sits. Too many nodes is a sign of unnecessary organizational complexity, which slow down the decision making processes.

Weak time-management skills

While we discussed Maura Thomas’ theory that the modern workday has outgrown time management training above, both she and Garton agree that individuals are too often left on their own to figure out how to manage their time. Tools now exist that can help managers understand where their teams are spending too much time on meetings and collaboration, too little time on productive activities and entirely too much time on answering emails.

Overloading the most capable workers

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but as workloads seem to multiply, managers will continue to look to their best and brightest team members to help them keep up. Garton pointed out that, while average managers lose a day of their workweek to electronic communications and two days to meetings, highly talented managers suffer much more because their knowledge and success earns them a larger workload. Those same tools that help managers understand where their teams are wasting time can also help them see who is taking on a bigger piece of the team’s burden.

A manager can have a positive effect on his employees’ stress levels and work/life balance by manipulating job design and understanding the effects of an organization’s culture on job demands.

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