Yes, you can reduce employee stress – and maximize performance, too

David Lee

Many managers mistakenly fear that efforts focused on reducing employee stress require reducing productivity or creating a “country club” atmosphere of low expectations and reduced workloads. Thus, they shy away from even talking about employee stress. However the perception that reducing employee stress requires management practices that reduce employee productivity could not be further from the truth. In fact, the opposite is true.

The higher cost of stressed out employees

When organizations manage in ways that bring out the best in people, they also reduce employee stress. That’s why most of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” are industry leaders and enjoy high employee productivity. Stressed out, worn out, and burnt out employees are less likely to produce high quality products, give great customer service, or generate breakthroughs. They DO incur greater health care costs, get into more accidents, make more mistakes, fear and resist change, think inside the box, and give brand-damaging customer service.

Employees who feel passionate about their work and feel energized going to work — they are the key to an employer’s success.The key to maximizing productivity while minimizing stress is understanding the factors that influence whether someone working very hard will feel stressed out and burnt out, or whether they will feel motivated, excited, and committed. Scientific research on stress, combined with best practices of high performance companies offers clear clues about what factors determine whether employees will be stressed out or energized by workplace demands.

To maximize employee productivity and performance — and reduce employee stress — organizations can:

  • Give employees as much control over their jobs as possible. Decades of research shows that control is the biggest factor in whether people feel stressed out or invigorated when facing a challenge. The more control people have over their work, the greater their job satisfaction, the higher their work quality, and the lower their stress level. Giving employees control includes giving them the power to make job-related decisions, the flexibility to organize their work in the way they find optimal, and the authority to make improvements on how their job is done. Making this work requires providing employees with the training, coaching, and information they need to make intelligent decisions.
  • Communicate clearly and often about everything important. One of the greatest sources of employee stress is not knowing about changes taking place in the company; not knowing their supervisor’s job and performance expectations; and not knowing if they are doing a good job. Communicating clearly in these areas not only reduces employee stress, it also helps them do a far better job. If you’re like most managers and most employers — even really good ones, you can do a LOT better on this.
  • Continually communicate with your employees about what makes your company great, how you bring value to your customers, and how your employees make that possible. People want to feel part of something great, and they want to feel that they are making a significant contribution to that greatness. When they feel this way, they not only become energized by challenges, they can also endure much greater pressures and demands without becoming burnt out.

You can put this principle into action by making sure you always deliver a high quality product or service, by sharing stories with employees about the value your company provides to your customers, and linking these stories to how their doing high quality work makes it all possible. When “sharing stories,” don’t just forward a customer email or tell some watered down second-hand story in a company newsletter. Interview that customer. Get it on tape. Show it to employees at company meetings and on your website. Use them as teaching tools, explaining how what they do made this story possible.

  • Make sure supervisors know how to bring out the best in people. Supervisors obviously play a huge role in employee morale, performance, and stress level. Supervisors with poor management skills or with personal problems not only can’t help employees deal with stressful times, they themselves are a tremendous source of stress. The time and financial resources you invest in selecting and training managers will pay huge dividends in reducing employee stress, increasing productivity, and minimizing turnover. Also, the courage you display by “freeing up the future” of managers who continue to mistreat — or simply manage poorly — will pay off in terms of reduced employee stress and increased employee performance. It will also increase employees’ respect for leadership.
  • Encourage employees to cultivate their internal social network. An “all work and no play” environment burns out people quickly. Having a workplace where co-workers can talk without worrying about getting into trouble is especially important in high pressure jobs. Encouraging connections among co-workers also reduces stress because having social support reduces the negative effects of stressful situations.

According to a large body of scientific research, having supportive friends and family members is one of the most important factors influencing a person’s ability to handle stress and major life crises without becoming physically or emotionally compromised. Thus, employers with a culture of esprit de corps and camaraderie typically have a much more resilient and hardy workforce.

  • Help employees design their jobs to be as rewarding as possible. Although not all jobs are equally rewarding and fulfilling, much can be done to make even the least desirable more enjoyable. The more opportunity employees have to make decisions, use their mind, and take responsibility, the more fulfilled they will be. To make this work, employees need to be involved in the job enrichment process. If employees have worked for years in an environment where they were told what to do, it will probably take time for them to learn how to take a more responsible and active approach to their jobs.
  • Improve your hiring, orientation, and onboarding processes. Because the first few months on the job are often the most stressful, new employees are often the most vulnerable to accidents and injuries. For companies that have a “sink or swim” approach to new employees, these first few months are also a time of high turnover. The more effective your hiring, new hire orientation, and onboarding processes, the more likely new employees will be well-suited, and prepared, for their jobs.
  • Make sure employees have the resources and training to do their jobs well. When employees are set up to fail — to feel the “Agony of Defeat” on a regular basis, they will be stressed out every day on the job. Employers set up for employees to experience the “Agony of Defeat” by not giving them the tools, technology, time, staff, or training to do their job’s well.

When an employee’s everyday experience is one of frustration, failure, and defeat, they use up all their energy just dealing with the obstacles to success strewn in their path. This is energy that won’t be available for high productivity, spirited customer service, and a “Bring it on!” attitude when faced with big challenges.



Hire right the first time

David Lee is founder and principal of http://www.humannatureatwork.com. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety, as well as over almost 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at http://www.humannatureatwork.com or contact him at [email protected].


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