This article was updated on Oct. 4, 2018.
Workplace stress management is a major concern, not just for HR leaders, but for entire organizations. Stress directly affects costs and morale and disrupts business operations. When your managers are stressed, it has large spillover effects, such as diminished organizational productivity and increased absenteeism.
According to the American Institute of Stress, there is a direct correlation between stress and absenteeism. It estimates that 1 million U.S. employees are absent every day because of stress-related issues. Because your managers lead by example, their behavior can quickly contaminate the whole organization if they are stressed out and accumulating absences.
Defining Management Stress
Stress is a complicated thing and depends on the subtle interaction of individuals, groups and workplace dynamics. Where one manager might feel debilitating stress, another might feel an energizing challenge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines workplace stress as "the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker." Stress, then, can be viewed as a perceived inability to control workflow. The intensity of a manager's stress depends on multiple factors, such as the size of the demands placed upon him or her and the relative control/autonomy the manager has in terms of decision-making.
Costs of Workplace Stress
Stress and stress-related health issues are major drivers of workplace absenteeism. Absenteeism costs U.S. organizations roughly $3,600 each year for an hourly worker and $2,650 for a salaried worker, per The Benefits Guide.
How are the direct and indirect costs related to absenteeism broken down?
Direct costs include the wages paid to absent employees, the additional costs of replacing absent workers (whether through overtime for existing employees and/or bringing in temporary workers) and the administrative costs connected to managing absenteeism.
Indirect costs include reduced productivity, the poor quality of production or services related to understaffing, lost management time when finding replacement workers and administering discipline and decreased morale of employees forced to do more with less.
Doing everything you can to control absenteeism, especially among managers who serve as examples for the whole organization, is vitally important for cost control, productivity and atmosphere.
Solutions to Management Stress
Completely de-stressing your workplace may be impossible, but you should have indicators in place to understand the size of your organization's stress problem. Monitoring absenteeism is one way to track employee stress, but other available tools might include paying close attention to retention problems, the exit interviews you conduct, your annual employee satisfaction survey, the number of employee grievances and unusual dips in productivity. You could even just walk around and observe, looking for individualized signs of stress, such as facial expressions, inappropriate language and tension. Additionally, big data tools can now give you real-time monitoring of an array of problems that may indicate larger problems with stress, such as potential fraud and operational inefficiencies.
Focusing on your managers is a good way to mitigate organizational stress. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, "managers play a pivotal role in workplace stress management. This means that for employers to reduce and manage workplace stress effectively, they need to ensure that managers demonstrate the skills and behaviors that allow them to manage their staff in ways that minimize work-related stress." Just as managers can be incubators of stress, they can also be models for managing it well.
No one solution will work for all organizations, but HR leaders should consider an array of organizational stress management options or interventions, including training for managers, scheduling flexibility, wellness programs, employee assistance programs, better communication about work expectations and available resources, work-life balance initiatives and big data analytics. An important first step for HR leaders will be to foster communication across the organization about stress and potential strategies to measure and manage it.
The availability of resources in managing stress on both an individualized and organizational level is impressively large. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is a great place to start looking for resources on identifying, measuring and reducing workplace stress. The American Psychological Association is another rich resource.
Workplace stress can cost your organization dearly. HR leaders should be developing the capability to monitor, measure and intervene appropriately when stress becomes a problem for managers and employees.
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