Workplace Stress.

Dynamic environments frequently cause stress and this has implications for business owners, managers and regular employees as they go about their jobs. We normally associate dynamic environments with high tech businesses that are growing and moving rapidly in order to keep ahead of the demand for their evolving products. But workplace stress is no longer just a feature of high tech businesses.

The recession in 2008 has had a profound affect on most business environments, as financial pressures have created stress in the workplace, even in what were typically benign business environments. Even government departments must get by on less, while greater productivity is being demanded of employees and civil servants alike.

A certain level of stress in the work environment can be positive as it spurs managers and employees to be demanding of themselves and in what they produce. This may often be the greatest stimulus of business success in dynamic businesses, wherein rewards are commensurate with the effort made by employees and employees are happy to take on more than they might have to in an alternative employment.

However, there is a dark side to stress that is extremely unhealthy. Constant and uncontrolled stress can lead to demotivation and mental health issues like clinical depression. This can have a profound effect on small and medium sized businesses in particular, largely because they are typically not as well equipped to deal with stress and mental health issues as their larger competitors. Smaller businesses may not invest heavily in creating HR departments and support structures that are crafted to deal with stressed employees, and employees are perhaps left to deal with these types of issues on their own.

Remember, workplace stress is not just something that impacts overworked employees; it has an equal and sometimes greater impact on business owners and managers, particularly as they fight to survive in competitive markets in slowly recovering global economies. Yes, the recession is supposedly over but it has a long tail that is still being felt in many businesses. So how should the average SME business owner deal with the issue of workplace stress? Let us take a look at some of the underlying issues and possible solutions.

Recognizing the symptoms

I know that busy executives may have their own set of worries and that their antennae may not always be up when it comes to the demeanor of managers and employees. In fact, they might not even be aware of the stressors that are causing them to lose sleep or become stressed themselves. However, they do need to develop the sensitivity, and the time, to enable them to keep their fingers on the pulse of their organization and the people whom they work with.

A little bit of time for retrospection is also useful. If the CEO or other senior executives fail to recognize workplace stress or mental health issues in their business, then someone should be given the responsibility for knowing what is going on in the hearts and minds of employees, and they should also be given the authority to do something about it.

Identifying causes

Recognizing workplace stress and stressed employees is only the first step in dealing with this important issue in business. It is also critical to dig deep and to develop a clear understanding of that is causing the stress. Some key questions might be:

  • Is the stress related to unreasonable demands being made by superiors?
  • Is the business in financial difficulty?
  • Are there serious operational challenges in the business?
  • Is it down to bullying in the workplace?
  • Is it something that is personal to an individual and related to something in their lives outside the business?
  • Is there open dialogue and sharing of key information within your business both horizontally and vertically?
  • Is it common amongst employees or is it just one or two individuals that appear stressed or unhappy?
  • Has it been going on for a long time or is it something of recent origin?
  • Do employees fear that they may lose their jobs?
  • Is the remuneration policy fair and commensurate with the skills of the employees?
  • Has something happened in the business in the last 6 to 12 months that has caused a dramatic shift in performance or the level of responsibility that individual employees must assume?
  • Do employees get a chance to raise issues on a regular basis, without fear of rancor, and perhaps within the business’s performance appraisal/ management system?
  • Is the culture of the business one of nurturing employees or are employees simply told what to do?

Addressing the causes

Once you have identified that stressed employees exist in your business, and you have identified the reasons why, you need to ask yourself hard questions about the best way to deal with the underlying issues. Then you need to customize a program to deal with it so that it can be eradicated. Different stressors will demand different responses.

Recognizing depression

Allowing stress levels to remain high in a business can have costly consequences. Protracted stress can trigger depression in some individuals and you risk temporarily losing key hires due to protracted absences from the business, or they may just walk our the door permanently. If someone becomes clinically depressed, then they need help, and you should be in a position to offer this help by making referrals to suitably qualified medical professionals when and if this is needed.

Avoidance strategies

Don’t be tempted to avoid seeing and recognizing signs of stress in your business. Instead meet it head on and deal with it. If you want to attract and retain the best people, you need to create a healthy and supportive work environment. It will not serve you to assume that the problem belongs to the employee and that they need to fix it themselves. Similarly, if you are becoming stressed as a leader of your own business, don’t be tempted to put your head in the sand and hope it goes away. Making it better means dealing with stress head on and resolving the underlying causes.

Support structures

If you can, provide structures in your business to support people that become unreasonably stressed. Talking things out can often be all that it needed to resolve an uncomfortable situation that causes grief for an employee. Provide a mechanism for the employees to raise issue of importance to them and deal with such issues quickly and confidentially, particularly if it is stress related.

Healthy businesses vs. sick ones

Unfortunately, not every business cares about their employees and it sometimes happens that selfish owners or managers want to squeeze the last dime out of each person in the business. If you are an owner or manager with this perspective on running a business, you may find that the best employees leave and those that remain are resentful and less productive.

Cost of inaction

Unhappy employees usually results in sub-par performance by the business so remember to treat them well and with respect and it will translate into a better top and bottom line when it comes to financial results. If you are an employee in a dysfunctional business, vote with your feet and move on to where your talents and experience will be rewarded properly. If you are stressed and unhappy as a business owner, then it might be time for you to find a new line of work.


Niall Strickland