Managing Workplace Stress
Solutions for Employees, Implications for Leaders
As I worked toward completing my Master’s in I/O Psychology, I took all of the courses you would expect – employee selection, multivariate stats, training and development, performance management. I was also required to take a class on occupational health and stress. For part of the class, my ignorance got the best of me. I couldn’t see the full value, as I could with other courses, of spending a semester learning about stress in the workplace. I was too focused on acquiring the knowledge and learning the skills that would set me up for success in the job market and workplace – building reliable and valid selection tools and processes; designing employee trainings and evaluating program effectiveness; and analyzing data – to name a few. At the time, I didn’t see how learning about workplace stress would have a significant benefit on my success. Needless to say, this year has made me feel foolish at ever having had thoughts around whether there was any purpose of learning about workplace stressors, or how to successfully navigate them to avoid burnout.
2020, which will always be known as “The Covid Year,” has created constant challenges for employees and those in positions of leadership. Among many things, employees fear for their job security, adjusting to new ways of working, increased workloads as a result of team members being furloughed or laid off, and the unknown. Leaders must determine how to redesign and restructure operations, maintaining financial solvency, and ensuring employee engagement and retention.
The bottom line is that the pandemic transformed our work, creating a multitude of stressors – factors in the work environment that we perceive as stressful, which ignite a stress reaction (both physically and mentally), causing psychological and physiological strain. There can be an infinite number of stressors in the workplace, but some of the most consequential stressors include:
Work Demands: How people perceive their workload (e.g., pace, intensity, difficulty).
Interpersonal (Relationships): Workplace incivility (i.e., rudeness at work), bullying and harassment, abusive behavior from supervisors.
Role: Role ambiguity (lack of clarity around job responsibilities) and role conflict (balancing many competing demands and responsibilities).
Work/Non-work Boundary: How we manage the intersection between our work and personal life.
Extra-Organizational: Factors that affect all aspects of our life and mental state (e.g., finances, state of our relationships), which affect performance and behavior at work.
It’s easy to see how each of these stressor categories could be escalated as a result of the year we’ve had. For example, the crises we’ve been through tossed role boundaries out the window. Many employees were forced into new roles and feeling uncertainty, and are having to manage shifting responsibilities as industries and economies continue to manage the crisis. Additionally, many employees are carrying larger and tougher workloads, coupled simultaneously with childcare and family responsibilities. Virtual and remote work has removed the boundaries we’ve had in the past around how we integrate work into our lives.
What’s perhaps most important is what occurs if we don’t proactively address the stressors we experience from work – burnout. While not classified as a medical condition, burnout is included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It isn’t something to take lightly. When we reach the point of burnout, we experience chronic feelings of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. We also mentally distance from and hold negative feelings toward our work.
What can employees do to manage workplace stressors?
While there is an empirical science to burnout and workplace stressors, our perceptions are subjective. What I find to be stressful, a team member of mine may not. Past experiences, personality type, available resources, and other stressors in our lives all influence our perceptions of stress and ability to manage it. The differentiator is appraisal – how we interpret and perceive the stressors in our job (or personal life). This suggests that employees have a choice in how they view workplace stressors – and that we can learn to view them in ways that are not as threatening, and even as positive opportunities.
Imagine you encounter a stressor – something that could affect your well-being. First, you make a primary appraisal . Do you perceive it as significant enough to derail your ability to perform, behave, or act? If yes, you then move on to the secondary appraisal – what actions can you take to prevent it from becoming debilitating – and thwarting your performance?
Appraising your stressors provides you with a sense of control over them, which is incredibly helpful in itself, as being overloaded with stressors can make us feel as if we are spiraling out of control. When we engage in that secondary appraisal, we are determining whether our stressors are hindering or challenging.
Hindrance Stressors: Stressors appraised as obstacles that cannot be overcome, regardless of effort (e.g., Lack of job security, organizational politics).
Challenge Stressors: Stressors appraised as challenges (or opportunities) that can be overcome through effort (e.g., Heavy workload, temporary crisis). These can even be motivating for employees.
To tie everything together, imagine you are experiencing stress at work because of a heavy workload. You engage in primary appraisal and determine that your heavy workload is going to become debilitating if you don’t do something to address it. Next, you engage in secondary appraisal to determine what you need to do in order to address it before it becomes debilitating. More often than not, heavy workloads are temporary, so you may perceive it as a challenge, rather than a hindrance. You might consider seeking the help of a team member, or even a supervisor, who can assist with some of the work. You may also consider seeking out clear direction on deadlines for each of the projects or tasks you need to complete so that the workload feels more manageable. And, in viewing your workload as a challenge, you may perceive it as a motivating force (e.g., I will feel a tremendous sense of achievement once I finish all of these responsibilities). In other words, consider how the projects you have on your plate might contribute to your learning and growth on the job. Appraisal is designed to give you a feeling of control over your stressors.
Can stress be beneficial?
Earlier, I mentioned how we can learn to view stress in a positive way. This is called eustress – the positive consequences of dealing with our work demands. Have you ever considered that being exposed to stress can generate positive thoughts and emotions? That it can lead to meaningful growth and performance improvement? This isn’t to suggest that the positive outcomes we gain from dealing with the stressors in the work environment completely overrule the negative effects. High levels of stress can be beneficial, and understanding these benefits can help to better frame and contextualize stress in the workplace.
How does eustress work in action? In my final semester of graduate school, I had two looming responsibilities hanging over me. One was studying for and taking my comprehensive exams, and the other was defending my thesis. For four months, I spent all of my time studying for comps and finishing my thesis, while also balancing other consulting projects. These two major tasks were stressors, and through appraising them, I acknowledged that they were challenges that I could overcome. I imagined the overwhelming sense of achievement I would feel once I finished my exams and defended my thesis, and considered how the process would help me grow professionally. To mitigate the effects of the stressors on my well-being as much as possible, I created an ongoing and tentative schedule for myself each week of what I needed to study and how much I needed to progress on my thesis. It was also helpful to have a deadline for comps so that I knew the point at which I needed to be prepared, and I was also able to set a defense date for my thesis. Having those deadlines to work toward helped guide my preparation and made my workload feel more manageable. It made me feel in control of my situation.
One thing to note is that a thesis was not required for me to graduate. However, I chose to go through the process because I had the desire to determine the limit to which I could push myself. I anticipated the stress it would bring ahead of time, and when the stress arrived, I appraised it in a positive light because I knew the process would be a learning and growth opportunity. Which brings up one final point, and something that shouldn’t be discounted. Some employees are better disposed to handle stress in the workplace based on their attributes. Employees high on the following attributes are better able to manage workplace stressors.
Hardiness (Resilience, Stress Resistance): People who are higher in resilience are better able to deal with stressors and counter their potentially negative consequences. Resilient individuals view challenges and obstacles as opportunities they can overcome, and circumstances from which they can learn and grow.
Optimism: People high on optimism generally expect positive things to happen to them, and believe things will work out for the best. Optimistic individuals experience less adverse reactions to stressors.
Proactivity: People who are higher in proactivity can anticipate problems in the workplace and address them before they become major sources of stress.
-This goes back to my thesis example. I anticipated the stress that writing a thesis would bring, and created a plan for myself to be successful so that it wouldn’t become a debilitating issue.
Locus of Control (LOC): People with an internal LOC believe they have control over what happens to them – and are better equipped to manage stressors, while people with an external LOC believe they are at the mercy of events and factors beyond their control.
In order to truly be able to excel at work, employees also need to be able to see and understand the importance of what they are doing, and how the actual work they do benefits others. This principle applies to effective goal-setting as well. If you’ve ever struggled to achieve a goal that you set for yourself, consider whether it was due to not seeing the impact that achieving it would have on you or on others. At the end of the day, employees need to see value in their work, and feel a sense of meaning and significance – or even excitement. Very similar to the appraisal process, employees should consider whether the work they do is meaningful. If it is, motivation to persevere during stressful circumstances will likely increase, and the impacts of stressors on your performance are likely to be minimal because you enjoy what you do. However, if you are lacking that sense of purpose or meaningful challenge, consider ways in which you can redefine the scope of the work that you do. For example, if you work in talent acquisition but are also interested in contributing to the organization’s success around employee development, it may be beneficial to talk with your supervisor about projects or experiences you can involve yourself in that support your organization’s efforts in developing its people.
Implications and Solutions for Leaders
I’ve talked about appraising workplace stressors, being able to frame stress in a positive way, how the work itself can mitigate stress, and some common personality attributes that better dispose us to handle stress effectively. This is not meant to be an “end-all, be-all” guide to stress management. There is a wealth of research and literature on the topic of occupational stress and health, and I encourage you to seek it out to learn more. However, this information is something that organizational leaders can research further and leverage to help their teams manage the stress this year has brought – and the general stressors present at work during non-pandemic times.
Hiring for “Stress Managers”. Before we even get to helping teams manage workplace stressors and ensuring they feel supported and engaged, we can incorporate one’s ability to manage stress effectively into the selection process. Remember those personality attributes we just talked about? Especially for leaders who operate in high-stakes industries like healthcare and aviation, and where stress is a prevalent force across common roles, consider screening for these attributes during the hiring process to identify candidates who are likely to have greater difficulty managing stress. Pre-employment assessments can help screen for these attributes.
Gauging Team Member Stress. A simple pulse survey can help leaders gauge the type of stressors their teams are dealing with, and to what degree. Custom employee experience surveys can provide leaders with insights into a variety of organizational and leadership variables that impact workplace stressors and the degree to which team members experience and are equipped to address them. Leaders can measure whether their teams feel supported and engaged, and how they perceive their work environment and workload, working relationships, and changes in the workplace.
Behaviors and Actions. Leaders largely impact the ways in which their teams experience stressors at work, which stressors they experience, and whether they have the resources to navigate them successfully. Below are some ways in which leaders can modify their behaviors and actions to better contribute to a culture of support, empowerment, growth, and strong performance.
-Consider the way in which you treat your team members when one of them makes a mistake. Reacting strongly and negatively consistently makes it far less likely for team members to approach you with concerns, leading to a more hostile and fear-inducing work environment.
-Consider how your team perceives you as a leader, particularly around your interpersonal skills. We generally consider ourselves to be strong from an interpersonal standpoint, but doing a self-assessment or participating in a 360-degree feedback process can reveal areas where improvement would impact the team experience and reduce potential stressors in the work environment.
-Seek to understand the obstacles and pain points that your team members have to deal with on a consistent basis and look for ways to remove or mitigate their effects.
-Consider providing team members with challenging “stretch” assignments – ones that are difficult, but attainable. Doing so can help build team members’ confidence in their ability to deal with challenges at work, and help them to gain the experience and develop the skills necessary to manage stress effectively in the future. Furthermore, encourage team members to challenge themselves and take risks, and provide support along the way as needed.
A brief aside: Much of what I shared is information I learned from a book that we used in my occupational health and stress class –Thriving Under Stress (Thomas Britt & Steve Jex – he taught our Managing Director, Jennifer Yugo, when she was at Bowling Green) – and I highly encourage you to check it out if you find yourself uncertain of how to navigate stress in your own job. I have been able to apply many of the principles from the book to my own life in order to more effectively manage stress in the workplace. I’ve also reached the conclusion that it’s impactful to share with others when you are feeling stressed, and anyone who says they never feel or have felt stressed at work is lying to you.
Britt, T. W., & Jex, S. M. (2015). Thriving Under Stress: Harnessing Demands in the Workplace.
Cavanaugh, M. A., Boswell, W. R., Roehling, M. V., & Boudreau, J. W. (2000). An empirical examination of self-reported work stress among U.S. managers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 65-74.
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer.
Maddi, S. R. (2002). The story of hardiness: Twenty years of theorizing, research, and practice. Consulting Psychology Journal, 54, 175-185.
Scheier, M. F., & Carver, G. S. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 4, 219-247.