Most businesses have great security systems in place to protect their “property.” Small businesses place cameras on-premise while larger businesses have gates, security guards, and electronic entry cards. Yet, the real thief responsible for more than $200 billion annual loss in US businesses is lurking within.
That bandit is none other than stress in the workplace. Many are unaware of their stress, and others feel they simply can’t do anything about it. In reality, the do-nothing attitude is causing loss of productivity, unhealthy workplace relationships, costly employee turnovers, absenteeism and increased healthcare costs. A simple examination of your business can eliminate or highly reduce this silent productivity killer.
It behooves us to look at why people get stressed in general. While blanket statements like “poor working conditions create stress” are agreed upon by all, these statements may mislead us in looking for the right answer, or when trying to ask the right questions, such as: “Google’s workplace is quite enviable, but does that mean that Google employees have no stress?”
Let’s explore stress factors common amongst most people, whether in the workplace or life.
1. Lack of time or perceived lack of time
When you drive to the airport to have dinner at a nice restaurant close by, you don’t have any stress. Drive to the same airport knowing that if you are not there in 50 minutes you will miss your flight, and you will have an amazingly stressful ride and may arrive at the airport with stubs where your nails previously were.
- How do I overcome it? Make sure you are realistic about the deadlines you set for yourself and your employees. It’s important to set deadlines because people need that certainty as to when something needs to be done, but an unrealistic deadline will either get you an delayed project, or a half-baked project and a stressed out team. It’s understood that everyone has emergencies. But running emergency projects should be the exception, not the norm.
2. Too many open folders
Regardless of whether you are a good multi-tasker or not, working on too many things at the same time is stressful. Since our intuition is to accomplish projects and do them well, a portion of our mind is occupied with that laundry list of things to do which will in turn cause stress. If too many tasks are forced upon us, that stress is mixed with resentment and the results are substantially worse.
- How do I overcome it? Seems simple, but set priorities. In reality, in multi-tasking, when you break down to the sub-second, you (or your computer) are doing only one thing at a time. However, in the larger time spans, since you are swapping between projects it appears that multiple things got done simultaneously. Set priorities and as a very nice side-effect, it will require you to be aware of all points of view, project dependencies, and your talent pool. In addition, you want to break down your projects into the smallest feasible time span. For instance, if projects are broken down to 4-hour or 1-day chunks, as one segment is stalled awaiting a resource, you can use that time slot for another segment.
3. Lack of Clarity / Tentative Status / Indecision
This truth is as old as our instinct: people need to know where they stand. They like to clearly know what is expected of them and what their status is. Indecision, or worse yet - flipped/flopped decisions, lead to uncertainty. Uncertainty is the lifeline of stress.
- How do I overcome it? Steve Jobs used to say: “Clarity is Priceless.” I could not agree more. Be clear in your requirements. If requirements are given to you by others, ask for clarity before embarking on the project. Not only be a better communicator, but also request others to communicate more clearly. Keeping every interested party abreast of the progress or bottlenecks is no longer a nicety; it’s an absolute requirement for every project. You can choose from a variety of communication tools. Each has its own benefits and not all will fit your team. These can range from email and mailing lists, to twitter, social task apps, and more. All of these solutions work in different ways, but all have one thing in common: you must ensure that the communication happens and that it does so consistently, clearly, and punctually.
4. Lack of Knowledge
People get stressed out when they don’t have the right expertise to deal with the situation. I remember the first time I attempted to do my own tax return. While most people told me that it’s a walk in the park, I was completely stressed by it. I quickly realized that I didn't have the knowledge for this and I delegated to an expert. The stress disappeared instantly. For the past 30 years, someone else has been preparing my taxes and the money I pay is peanuts compared to the stress I would have gone through.
- How do I overcome it? Create an environment in which people do not fear bringing up their lack of expertise. If they secretly struggle, not only the project will suffer, but also they will be severely stressed. This does not mean that you should not challenge your team to push the envelope and expand their expertise. It simply means that if something is “unsolvable” by them, they should feel free to ask for an expert. On the management side, the cost of expert should not be feared either. Sometimes, paying an expert 5 times as much as your employee seems exorbitant, but when the project is done in one-tenth of the time, it’s clear to see that the investment is well worth it.
There are a small group of people that get bored easily. That boredom causes stress for them and they crave change. However, for the majority of people, it’s the change that causes stress. Changing jobs, cities, houses, significant others, schools.... When you are younger, it's the fear of the unknown that is the culprit, and when you are older, it’s the effort it takes to re-familiarize yourself with something new that stresses you out. This is why our grandparents get stressed with computers, and we get stressed playing our kids' video games.
- How do I overcome it? Focus on the benefits of the change. If you can’t clearly articulate the benefits vs. the threats of the change, don’t embark on it. If the change is good for the company, but employees are hesitant on it, you as the team leader must gain buy-in. You may have the power to force the change on your team, but the stress it will cause will be akin to you shooting yourself in the foot. This seems dangerous as many managers say that they can’t run their operation at the whim of their employees. That’s precisely where you need to ensure that it’s not merely a whim that you are dealing with, that all facts are known, and that your team can see the greater benefit. At any cost, do not force your way, even if it means that you have to rearrange your talent pool for this project or bring consultants on. Think of a scenario where you need to go off-roading. You will not do so with your sports car, or you will have a way suboptimal experience and stress your car beyond repair. Do not put your company in that position. It will create unbearable stress for the entire company, not just the group for this project.
6. Worrying about events that have not happened yet.
The world is filled with worst-case scenario people. This mentality makes you stressed about something that may or may not happen. Why waste brain cells?
- How do I overcome it? Aim for the best-case scenario, and plan to deal with less-ideal outcomes. The net effect is the same, but this option lets you enjoy the journey. Communicate the plan to your team, both in achieving the positive and dealing with disasters. After you do this a couple of times, a trust will be built that will help you with all ongoing and future projects. Trust is a major stress-buster.
7. Lack of Control
Perhaps the most common reason for stress in the workplace is lack of control. People feel that they either don’t have control over a situation, or they are not allowed to apply their solution to the problem at hand.
How do I overcome it? I know it sounds a bit like Mr. Spock, but this formula really works:
- If a problem has a solution, there is no reason to stress, just apply the solution.
- If there are no solutions to the problem, then stressing it out won't help, but will slow you down in trying find an alternative.
Applying a solution or creating a workaround translates to you doing something about the problem as opposed to just stressing about it. Your job as a manager is to consult with your team both to gauge their comfort level, and also to openly ask for solutions they may have. It’s the people who are closer to the problem that often have the best solution. A CEO of a company may make big decisions, but the janitor is much more capable than that CEO to decide how do deal with the day-to-day emptying of the trash cans.
8. Physical Health / Relationships
When people don’t feel good about themselves, they get stressed. When they get stressed, many seek instant gratification. Some go shop, eat high-calorie “upper” foods, drink, smoke, etc. Needless to say, these acts of instant gratification not only don’t reduce stress, they compound it. As a manager, you may feel that the personal well-being of your employees is none of your business. However, in fact, most employees spend most of their waking hours at work and their personal status not only affects their work, but also the entire company’s performance.
- How do I overcome it? Make sure employees feel open to tell you about their personal situations. Offer to act as a sounding board when they come to you for advice. Make sure your employees know that you will never use what you learn from these personal situations later on in business settings so that they feel comfortable coming to you. Build that trust. If you feel your team can benefit from it, invest in stress-busters such as a company health-club membership, team outings, company picnics, and more. Build that bond. It will make your employees stronger and more loyal, and it will make the company a better place.
Different things stress different people. This is perhaps why many people have given up on stress management and have relegated this monster to a fact of life. However, being aware of the most common stress-causing factors will not only allow you to be proactive in reducing stress in your workplace, it will also help you grow as a leader.
Remember, someone robbing you should not be considered business as usual. Take action today to identify and resolve sources of stress within your company.
Siamak Farah is the CEO of InfoStreet. InfoStreet is a Cloud app provider that offers SkyDesktop, a free patent-pending Cloud Desktop; SkyAppMarket, an app marketplace where a business can choose from the best Cloud apps in the market; and SkySingleSignOn, a federated login solution and network management tool. Together they provide all the files and applications a company needs to run their business in the Cloud.