What you’ll learn to do: Describe how theories and concepts around work–life balance affect notions of workplace stress management
How much stress is good stress? As we discussed earlier, a certain amount of stress is expected and motivating for an individual. Set goals should be challenging and incent the employee to work a little harder. That’s good stress. But when they become intimidating, that’s too much stress. That’s when things start to fall apart.
Back in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson developed a theory about stress and performance. They proposed an “inverted-U” relationship between arousal and performance, crediting heightened states of arousal with optimum performance. At a certain point, that performance takes a turn for the worse, with anxiety, illness and breakdown setting in.
The theory is popular and somewhat intuitive, even if there isn’t a lot of empirical support for it. But for the purposes of this, it illustrates the manager’s quandary: what’s the right amount of challenging, “good” stress for her employees?
Setting the right level of goals, making sure the job design is balanced and that work environments are supportive and encouraging—these are some of the challenges managers face daily in order to control stress in the workplace. They can also provide the employee with healthy choices to manage her own stress levels via programs and benefits that encourage self-care.
It’s all about work–life balance: the balance an individual needs between time allocated to work and time allocated to family and personal life.
- Discuss individual approaches to stress management
- Discuss job design and other managerial approaches to stress management
- Discuss wellness programs as an organizational approach to stress management
Individual Approaches to Stress Management
It would seem as though successful people have somehow learned how to beat stress and win at the game of life. While some crumble and fall under the demands and conditions of the workplace, others seem to thrive and make those pressures work for them. How do they do it?
The internet is primed and ready with hundreds of articles that advise today’s worker on how to find success with work-life balance. “Write a personal mission statement to clarify priorities,” one article preached. Another said, “Look for progress instead of perfection.” All of them are easier said than done.
Managerial studies have found that individuals who manage their time wisely, engage in physical activities and protect down/family time are the most successful at managing stress and creating an optimal work-life balance. Let’s take a look at each of these suggestions.
“If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two hours sharpening the axe.” This quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln and, whether he said it or not, it speaks to the essence of time management. Time management is the ability to use your time effectively and productively at work, the ability to create a schedule and plan your time to accomplish goals. Sharpen your metaphorical axe by setting aside uninterrupted time and make sure the tools to do the job are at your fingertips, and you’ll be working smarter, not harder.
There’s no shortage of time management training out there, and the basic principles of most of them include
- Creating daily list of tasks to be accomplished
- Prioritizing those tasks
- Schedule time to complete those tasks based on the priority assigned, and
- Tackle the most difficult tasks during the time of day when you’re most alert
Creating lists, prioritizing and scheduling are like sharpening that axe, and tackling them is akin to chopping down the tree.
Time management experts suggest learning to say no to tasks, and finding ways to eliminate low-priority trivial tasks from your to-dos. Flexibility is also a fairly common suggestion in modern time management training, given that so much of an employee’s work day is unpredictable. Time management experts suggest planning fifty percent of your day carefully, and leaving the other half open for unplanned “emergencies” as they come up.
Finally, time management experts suggest that workers reward themselves for completing the tasks on their list. Rewards are a great motivator (as we learned in Module 6: Motivation in the Workplace!).
Virtually any form of exercise can act as a stress reliever, even if you’re not an athlete, even if you’re not really in good athletic shape. Yoga, aerobics, a game of tennis, or even a simple walk with friends or family can provide stress release and should be a part of an individual’s stress management plan.
Exercise of any kind releases endorphins, which are the feel-good transmitters in your brain that make you happy. If you’ve heard of a “runner’s high,” that’s exactly the endorphin release to which we’re referring. Individuals responding to stressors aren’t experiencing too many endorphins, and exercise can help put them back into action.
Exercise can also provide an opportunity to refocus. An individual engaging in a game of racquetball, or running to beat a personal best time, becomes focused on the goal of the athletic effort, on the movements of his body and his athletic performance. This redirection of focus from stressors is a benefit.
Sleep is often disrupted by anxiety and stress, and regular exercise will improve an individual’s ability to get a good night’s sleep. It also improves an individual’s mood. Any individual looking to add exercise to his or her daily regimen should consult with a physician first, and, once given the green light, should make it a part of a weekly routine.
Individuals can often get a little closer to work-life balance by practicing any of a variety of relaxation techniques. Some relaxation techniques are practiced forms of meditation, and others are simply diversions that take the mind off stress. Consider the following practices:
- Autogenic relaxation. In this technique, one uses visual imagery and body awareness to relax, often by imagining yourself in a peaceful setting and then consciously relaxing your breathing, your limbs, and your body, a little at a time.
- Visualization. Individuals exercising this technique use as many of their senses as they can in order to put themselves in a relaxing scene. For instance, if one is imagining the beach, the smell of salt water and the sound of crashing waves help create the visualization.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. An individual will slowly tense and then relax each muscle group in this relaxation technique, starting with the toes and working upward throughout the body.
- Tai chi. Tai chi is a self-defense technique that’s developed into a gentle exercise that promotes good mental health and stress release using the concept of yin and yang. It’s often described as “meditation in motion.”
- Meditation. Individuals use this practice to achieve a mental calmness and clarity by focusing their mind on a particular thought, object or activity.
The list goes on, and you get the general idea: relaxation techniques support a level of calmness by changing focus to something other than the stressor. But one doesn’t need to zone out in a dark room in order to achieve that change of focus those relaxation techniques. A good laugh courtesy of your favorite sit-com, playing a musical instrument, dancing to loud music, or knitting might be closer to your idea of stress release.
Protecting Down Time/Time with Family
Here are some statistics you might find all too familiar: According to a 2016 study by the Academy of Management, employees bring home an average of eight hours of work a week. The American Psychological Association discovered that 30% of men and 23% of women regularly bring work home, and similar numbers of people admitted to working on vacation and bringing work on social outings.
Technology seems to demand that individuals be “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but an employee can’t protect work-life balance when that’s a looming expectation. The good news is that employees can leverage technology in their favor as well. Google Calendar now features a function that automatically rejects requests for meeting and calls outside of the user’s established work hours. Apple has created a VIP inbox that alerts you when messages from prioritized sources—your spouse, your kids, the CEO—have arrived, and lets Bob in the mailroom wait until you’re available.
Similarly, mobile carriers now have programs where you can designate blackout times, allowing you to completely shut off at dinner time, on weekends, or whenever you choose. And individuals should remember that they can just choose to turn off their mobile devices. The email messages will be waiting when they return.
Managers should be aware of individual stress relief practices, not only for their own well being, but for the well being of their staff. Allowing or encouraging individuals (or groups) to practice a small amount of stress relief during working hours, maybe in the form of lunchtime yoga or a financial management class, can save countless dollars and improve engagement and activity.
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.
When 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.
As we discussed in Module 6: Motivation in the Workplace, job design is 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:
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.
Organizational Approaches to Stress Management
In addition to careful job design and managing stifling company cultures, organizations are taking steps to help employees battle stress by offering programs, benefits and office “perks” that allow workers to make choices about managing stress as it best suits their needs.
We learned earlier that healthcare is an expensive endeavor for employers these days, and smaller, privately held companies are looking for clever benefit package designs that reduce an organization’s costs without costing the employee too much more. Stress and stress-related illness has a significant impact on healthcare costs, given annual costs for those stress-related health issues could be anywhere from $125 to $190 billion.
It’s not unusual for a company to offer their employees smoking cessation programs or asthma management programs to help keep healthcare costs in check. Now employers are looking to implement other wellness programs, knowing that stress-related health issues are a driving the cost of medical benefits. In fact, health care providers are starting to support these client endeavors, too, recognizing the need to cut spending however they can.
Wellness programs are organizational efforts to help employees improve their health and mental well-being by offering company-sponsored exercise, weight-loss competitions, health screenings and more. Some companies are looking at a more holistic view of stress release by concentrating not just on employee physical health, but also offering financial management classes and opportunities to give back to the community.
Nationwide, companies are seeing the benefits of offering their employees wellness programs. As you can see from the graph below, 91% of all large companies (with more than 10,000 employees) offer some type of wellness program. They’re a cost effective solution to a very expensive problem. Furthermore, as shown in the second graph below, a majority of employees are open to participating in them. Wellness programs are a win-win for companies and their employees.
Now, some employers offer these types of programs and then get in the way of their effectiveness. In Joel Goh’s study, he pointed out that, while US employers recognize that stress leads to costly health issues and put programs in place to combat them, those same employers sometimes undermine those programs with stress-inducing employment practices. These programs don’t work if the employee is too stressed and overloaded with work to participate!
Some younger companies are going the extra mile to incorporate wellness into their culture and work environment. Google and Apple are headliners among organizations that offer their employees multiple choices in stress-burning activities throughout the day—like ping-pong tables, foosball, bowling alleys—and other perks that allow their employees to eliminate stress from their lives, such as free meals and free rides to work. Masseuses, available for booking during work hours, and family-room like areas where employees can relax and put up their feet go a long way toward employee stress relief and comfort. These are great examples of companies taking a cue from the ways individuals pursue stress release and making some of those methods available in the workplace.
Companies can incorporate stress release into their benefits packages in other ways as well. Companies offering a nice paid-time-off package that features use-it-or-lose-it vacation time encourages their employees to step away from the office and enjoy time with their families. Discounted gym memberships can encourage employees to stay physically fit, and companies are starting to offer easy, direct-deposit college savings plans so that employees can more easily provide for the education of their offspring. Some companies have gone as far as providing on-site day care for employees, making child care convenient and cost-effective. Other companies have a dogs-allowed policy at the office, where people can bring in their pets and combat stressful situations with a furry hug.
Finally, mental health is an ever-present issue in today’s society, and employers offer employee assistant programs (EAPs) for those employees who are struggling with issues at work or in their personal lives. Employee assistance programs offer short-term, confidential counseling to employees, complete with referrals, free assessments and follow up services. Where wellness programs and company benefits can’t address mental health and wellbeing, employee assistance programs step in and make it easier for struggling workers to find help.
These wellness programs and benefits offerings are companies’ responses to the individual needs of their employees and their ongoing quest for work/life balance. Not only do they foster excellent perception that they care about their employees, but they also address the very costly issue of stress in the workplace.
Now that we’ve learned about different approaches to stress management, let’s take a moment to see how these approaches might play out in the workplace.