Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Anxiety and Stress Matter at Work, Too

Stress is good in the workplace, up to a point.

Stress is actually a good thing until it overloads people, becoming what is called “distress.” How much stress each of us can manage is a personal matter.

A question that managers should answer is whether their workplace is overly stressful or are some employees overly sensitive due to time demands. Employees who are not able to tolerate normal or intermittent stress at work are not a good match for that workplace. When anxiety appears in employees, the organization must determine the cause—a too-stressful workplace, or employees not capable of performing in the particular setting.

Some people are actually stress seekers. I am one. If I don’t have enough to do, I actually get lethargic. Having multiple things going on in my work life actually stimulates me to do and be better. It is one of the reasons I gravitated toward consulting, rather than honest employment!

When I am faced with anxiety or worry, I try to figure out the worst outcome and then begin to accept that worst outcome. Of course, that process of acceptance takes time and fortitude. Once I have accepted that there is going to be a financial cost or another consequence to a decision or mistake, I begin the “journey” toward accepting that cost or consequence. Once that has been accepted, the anxiety is diminished.

Employers, supervisors and coworkers can be instruments of anxiety reduction. It starts with awareness that others are experiencing anxiety or stress, followed by offering to listen and providing support. This used to be called moral support. Letting people know that they are not going through this alone is stress and anxiety reducing.

Another solution is to install an EAP (Employee Assistance Plan). This is a very inexpensive benefit where the organization contracts with a local mental health provider to establish a confidential service that allows the employee to access the provider when he or she has problems. The problems can be related to stress and anxiety at work or drug abuse, alcohol abuse, gambling problems, marital issues or any other problem. The service is paid for by the employer but, again, guarantees confidentially to the employee. It is access to a professional responder when an employee reaches out for help.

Employers and supervisors can be instruments of anxiety reduction for employees. It starts with awareness that others are experiencing anxiety or stress. Then, offering to listen (different than problem solving) and offering support. Just the act of letting people know that they are not going through the anxiety causing issue alone results in stress and anxiety reduction.

Employers also should not create “pressure cooker” work environments. I have seen many such environments over my years as a consultant. One such setting had a CEO and a COO who operated a lot like dictators. They had five employees younger than 40 years of age seeing doctors and taking medications for stress. They even had one manager hauled out of the office on a stretcher with a heart attack at work. The State Human Rights Commission issued a seven-figure fine against the organization for inflicting so much stress and anxiety on their employees. When asked what in the world the executives thought they were doing, their answer was “We were just trying to see if they would “sink or swim.” Not a good plan.

Employers should also take employee satisfaction surveys annually. Employers compete for employees and creating an attractive work environment is a retainage tool. Employers should strive to create and maintain a 90 percent rating. That means that 90 percent of all employees register high levels of satisfaction with their organization, its policies, practices and (most importantly) mid and senior management. Senior management should know if employees are overly stressed or anxious at work. If they find that a state of dis-stress or high anxiety exists at work, steps should be taken to find out why, and steps should be taken to reduce that condition immediately. 

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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