Managing Stress Key to Success

Holly J. Culhane SPHR
November 30, 2009 — 2,098 views  
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The focus of this issue certainly helps us understand that pets can add joy to our lives and, in many cases - in ordinary times, help reduce stress for some of us.  However, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that we are definitely NOT living in ordinary times; one peek at the newspaper and/or a glimpse of the evening news will quickly convince you of that sobering fact.  The reality exists we are currently treading in uncertain economic waters and many individuals are experiencing unprecedented and overwhelming stress, such as they may not have suffered prior.  Therefore, some may actually feel as if they are literally drowning in these difficult times and employers may be able to ease the stress a bit and throw them some life-lines.  The key, as it is to so many things in life, is communication. 

In recent years, workplaces have become more involved with stress management as the line between office and home began to blur and work/life balancing became an issue for both employers and their workers.  Over the past couple of decades companies recognized the need for providing stress outlets and began to offer such things as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), wellness services, and/or even flexible hours or telecommuting options for employees.  These services, coupled with individual efforts including reading stress management publications, yoga classes, brief relaxation breaks, meditation, etc., may be adequate in ordinary times but, unfortunately, fall woefully short in this taxing era of layoffs, plant closures, home foreclosures, and staggering debt-loads.

A recent article explains, "Today's stresses are not conventional.  Today's workplace stress is generated in part by fear of the unknown, as opposed to the usual stress of deadlines or people conflict and so forth."  The writer further states management must be involved in "communicating what's happening, what's expected, and reducing these fears."  (Babcock, Pamela, HR Magazine, "Workplace Stress? Deal with It!" May, 2009) 

Unfortunately, employers sometimes think they should remain silent on aspects of employees' lives over which they have no solutions.  For example, they believe if they openly recognize many workers are faced with overwhelming economic pressures, home foreclosures, etc., they will be "opening a can of worms" and forcing employees to dwell on these issues.  The fact is - the employees are already fretting about these matters and when management ignores them, seemingly pretending as if everything is rosy, the problems are actually exacerbated by the company appearing as "uncaring."  Workers may interpret supervisors' silence as indifference to the hard times in which we are all living at the moment. 

Because these are indeed trying times, individuals' stresses cross over between the workplace and home.  Financial worries, in part possibly caused by the employer, can affect performance on the job, as well as irritability at home.  Often, people respond to stress with unhealthy activities such as overeating, abuse of alcohol and/or tobacco products, or even violence.  Obviously, this compounds the problems further and can lead to debilitating conditions such as depression, heart disease, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, etc.  As an employee's overall health and self-esteem deteriorate, so does workplace performance, resulting in "decreased productivity, poorer work quality, distraction, apathy, illness and increased absenteeism."  (Babcock, Pamela, HR Magazine, "Workplace Stress? Deal with It!" May, 2009)  This will reflect in lowered satisfaction of clients, and a weakened bottom line.

So, just what can managers do to help this situation?  First of all, lend a sympathetic ear, as appropriate, and listen to your employees.  Communicate that the company wants to help in any way possible.  Make sure supervisors are trained to recognize tense situations and employees who may be "at-risk."  Be sure employees are aware of any EAP services and encourage them to take advantage of these programs, making sure they understand it doesn't indicate signs of weakness or failure on their part.  Also, provide information that may be useful to struggling individuals such as information on loan modification programs, workshops on how to manage money, and seminars to explore positive, relatively cost-free activities in which to participate with one's family.  If employees are concerned about retirement savings accounts, offer information and education to help them understand options they may have in this area.  Communicate through e-mails, management blogs, company newsletters, "town-hall meetings," etc.  Ask employees for advice on cost-cutting measures for the company...and then listen to what they propose.

Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, Pat Bentley emphasizes, "Employees need communication with others who share similar concerns.  Whether via company-sponsored programs or informal group meetings, employees will be less likely to isolate with distorted thinking when they know others can relate to them.  When employees experience stress that begins to feel unmanageable, or if they are trying to cope in less desirable ways, (i.e., drinking/eating/sleeping too much-or too little) they may need some professional assistance.  Again, a professional can help open the doors to better communication as well as teaching the individuals to reframe the way they think.   When stress is building inside of us, the key is to 'dump the trash can' before the trash begins to rot.  Connecting with friends, family, colleagues, and possibly professionals will be a first step toward this end." 

Most importantly, let everyone know that management cares about each individual and understands they are making huge sacrifices at the moment and are dealing with horrendous pressures.  Assure them their efforts are appreciated and will be remembered when things turn around and the economy improves.  Communicate we must all help each other and provide the support necessary to weather the current financial storm.

Holly J. Culhane SPHR

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Identified the need for human resource and organizational assistance for small- and medium-sized business­es and formed Profes­sional Administra­tive Systems in 1987. Now known as P A S Associates, this firm combines specialists in the fields of human resources, labor and employment law, affirma­tive action, and substance abuse policies and education, providing an unsurpassed Human Resource Center.