Tackling employee stress in the workplace is a growing priority for leaders. But a couple of important factors are often forgotten when seeking solutions, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, writing for McKinsey Quarterly.
The physical and psychological effects of stress are well documented and they can add up to expensive consequences. In the US, for example, employers pay out nearly $200bn a year in stress-related healthcare costs, not to mention the negative impact on productivity and staff turnover.
Encouraging your team members to sleep well, eat well, exercise and practise mindfulness are all positive ways to promote wellbeing. But important research has identified that the work people are asked to do – and the level of control they have over how to carry it out – has a major implication in terms of stress. Building strong and regular social connections at work also has a bearing on how pressured people feel.
In his latest book, Dying for a Paycheck, Pfeffer concentrates his attention on the twin values of job control and social support in terms of employees’ health and level of engagement with their company.
ENABLING MORE JOB CONTROL
Recent research showed that employees who face chronic stress at work were more than twice as likely to have a cluster of risk factors associated with heart disease and type-2 diabetes. And limiting the discretion people have in how they achieve daily tasks is a surefire way to stress them out. Studies also support a significant link between anxiety and depression, and lack of job control.
In his own studies, Pfeffer “heard much about the ever-evolving performance-evaluation criteria that made it tough to know how to succeed; the business trips rearranged without explanation; and even about a workplace ‘scout’ who had to discern the boss’s mood and alert the others”.
Pfeffer says the best and simplest ways to guard against these bad effects on mental and physical health are to:
1) Inject more autonomy and fluidity into every job role. Varying employees’ duties and locations, where possible, creates inspirational learning experiences.
2) Discourage bosses from micromanaging their teams. Flatten organisational structures to give managers a more supportive rather than authoritarian role.
ENCOURAGING SOCIAL SUPPORT
Having friendly, supportive relationships with work colleagues and customers has a direct effect on wellbeing, according to studies over the last 40 years.
“Having friends protects your health as much as quitting smoking and a great deal more than exercising,” says Pfeffer.
But how can leaders make it easier to promote better social support?
1) Root out negative cultures. Replace internal competition with incentives for good teamwork and encouragement for deeper connections within the workplace.
2) Demonstrate thoughtfulness. Show that the company cares about staff and customers by using managerial gestures of thoughtfulness – when people fall seriously ill, for example. Encourage this spirit of mutual support among employees too.
3) Democratise status. Get rid of titles that serve only to highlight rank and status in the workplace.
4) Promote sociability. Bring your teams together for social occasions to promote bonding.
Taking steps to safeguard your employees’ physical and mental wellbeing is imperative if you want a healthy and efficient workforce. Digging deeper to the underlying fundamentals of job control and social support will pay greater dividends than many other measures.