Why Stress Is So Stressful
It has been suggested that employee stress, depression, and a lack of personal motivation were caused by the disruption the pandemic brought and the subsequent ripple effect that followed.
This is false.
Although it may have accelerated their impact, the ingredients were already there and, to a large extent, were producing negative outcomes in the workplace long before.
Research into stress at work dates back more than 100 years - before modern universities. It was also known to exist in the textile factories - the so-called the “Satanic Mills” - of northwest England in the 18th century. Interest in stress at work, however, even predated the Industrial Revolution. Philosophers in Greece more than 2000 years ago discussed what we now call wellbeing.
Depression from stress can be caused by any one of several things. According to Harvard Health, the inability of your brain to regulate mood is one. Genetics may play a part, and of course stressful life events.
One such life stressor is deep disappointment, such as studying hard for a degree, and then failing at the last hurdle. Another stressor is the perception of terrible loss, such as the death of a spouse or close friend, or a divorce.
In the workplace, the stress can be compounded by worry about losing a job, or what to do when faced with redundancy.
According to Psychology Today, depression comes from a sense of defeat, though there’s much more to it than that. What’s significant, however, is that defeat or a sense of it at that level can cause someone to lose hope - a very dangerous state of affairs.
Lack of personal motivation
A lack of personal motivation also has many causes. One is that people no longer see the point of what they’re doing or have been asked to do. They feel that they’ve been given busy work - that they’re capable of doing so much more, but their boss won’t give them the chance to do it. This is closely related to the feeling that your job no longer matters, or perhaps that it never did, or that it won’t get them any closer to their professional goals.
Managers are often responsible for demotivating people. Micromanagement, for instance, can destroy motivation because when employees are made to feel that they’re never good enough, then they’ll stop trying. This is what learned helplessness looks like.
Other causes include illness, fatigue, and burnout, each of which can be caused by other things or a combination of them.
Why is there stress at work?
Organizational stress is also caused by a number of things, though it would be wrong to assume that all of it is bad. We need some stress to prompt us to take action; to do something to improve our situation. When everything is exactly the way we want it, then it’s easy to bask in it rather than to make the effort to maintain it.
But there’s a fine line between enough stress and too much.
What constitutes too much stress?
It’ll be different for everyone, and that’s because everyone has their own weaknesses, pressures, and responsibilities. And that’s why you can’t compare your abilities to cope with stress to anyone else.
For instance, you may cope well with stress because a) you know how the changes that are coming will impact you; b) you have the authority to minimize that personal impact; and c) you’ve been given more notice than other people. All of these things mean that you’ve had a chance to think about what to do and to prepare accordingly.
Now imagine the poor employee who has no knowledge of how those same changes will affect them, little if any time to prepare, no authority to affect a different outcome, and fears the worst possible outcome as a result. That person has more stress to deal with in that situation than you do.
Why is there too much stress at work?
There are a lot of reasons. One, of course, is that there’s just too much to do. May be your organization is so good that everyone wants you, and you’re already at full stretch trying to fill the orders that keep coming in.
Another possibility is that you can’t get the staff. You have vacancies, but you don’t get enough applicants, or the ones you get lack the skills you need.
The thing is that whatever the reason, you’re going to have to reduce the stress that people feel at work, otherwise many of them will feel so overwhelmed that they’ll not only leave your employ; they may also leave the industry. In the UK, for instance, there’s been a teaching shortage for many years, and that was long before the disruption experienced because of Covid-19. Remarkably, after all these years, the “powers that be” still haven’t understood that teachers go into the profession to teach; not to test or to fill out forms, and until they get it, this problem will not go away.
And staff who are chronically overstretched tend to get sick more often. Absenteeism can impact productivity. It’s a vicious cycle. You have too much work and can’t hire enough qualified people to do it, and so the ones that are there begin to worry about getting their work done. They don’t get enough sleep. They don’t get any time with their families. The stress wears down their immune system, and they get sick. Although less common than it used to be, even if they don’t feel well, they come to work regardless because they don’t want their absence to have a negative effect on the annual rating, and because there’s so much to do already. Eventually, they decide that they’ve had enough and quit working for you altogether. You may have witnessed this in others or experienced it yourself.
Other reasons for too much stress at work
Notwithstanding the reasons just mentioned, there are other preventable reasons why there’s too much stress at work.
Incompetent or demanding bosses, long hours, and the improper use of technology - in particular, mobile phones, email, texts, and teleconferencing. If these things were only used in the office, it would be bad enough, but the work-from-home mandates forced the workplace into people’s private lives. And that upset the delicate work/life balance that many had just about learned to manage.
Although the law in most cases limits the working week to 37.5 hours, it doesn’t seem to include the added time that people end up working when they’re at home. That means that organizational stress extends to any room of the house.
The problem is exacerbated when managers and supervisors bully their employees and attempt to foist guilt on them when they try to spend more time with their families, or just relax.
Ultimately, the root of organizational stress is that bosses don’t value their people. That’s what makes stress so stressful.
Deadlines, supply chain issues, unhappy customers whether in the public or private sectors - all those things cause a greater or lesser degree of stress at work, and people accept that as part of the job; but what makes stress stressful is when bosses don’t support their staff; when instead they perpetually criticize, find fault, micromanage, and ask the impossible. And that’s because employees expect their bosses to be on their side; to support them in the work that they must do.
Just how bad is workplace stress?
Let’s look at some outcomes:
• In the UK, nearly 70% of new employees quit because of bad management. Employees simply want to do the work they’ve been hired to do. There’s enough agro as it is without getting it from incompetent managers who only make their lives more difficult.
• 12.7% of all absences due to illness in the UK can be attributed to mental health problems. Too much stress, as we’ve seen already, can cause these issues. Organizational stress can precipitate depression by making promises they can’t or won’t keep. This creates huge disappointment in people who have vested a lot of hope in something that they’ve worked for. When organizations let them down, they can feel defeated and eventually lose hope.
What can you do to reduce unnecessary stress in the workplace?
What leaders should do
It’s a truism to say the leaders must lead, though so many of them don’t. Instead, they wait for events to overtake them. They wait to see what happens, and then proclaim that this is what they intended to do all along.
No one is fooled by that.
Leaders must point their organizations in the direction that they want it to go, and then create a vision of it for those that they want to follow it. In other words, they must connect the dots for people.
If you’re a leader, then you must help people to understand what your vision looks like because most of them won’t know or be able to figure it out. And the real risk of failing to do this is that those you want to follow you will create their own idea of what they think it means, or what they want it to mean, and that could be something entirely different from what you had in mind.
What managers should do
The primary job of a manager is to remove obstacles such that employees can do what they do best. They do this by using their authority to obtain whatever is needed so they can, including access to people in the organization who are unavailable to those they supervise, and when needed to offer their own expertise to fill in or help those in their charge to get their work done.
Management, however, does not mean hiding in your office when there are queues of customers to serve. In the retail sector especially, the shortage of staff is likely to get worse, which means that managers will need to help out even more.
Change the environment
The environment in the workplace can contribute to the stress that people already feel. Excessive noise, dirt, a disregard for safety, and general disorganization can do it. Constant interruptions are another problem.
Part of the job of managers as well as leaders is to ensure that the surroundings contribute to good work and don’t detract from it. You can’t expect people to do their best work in an environment that’s not designed to promote it.
Give everyone adequate rest
Adequate rest doesn’t mean the bare minimum. If you want to err, then do so on the side of giving them too much. Some organizations give people personal days in addition to the mandatory holiday time. On the other hand, there are those who insist that their employees take some of that mandatory time at only certain times of the year. Doing so creates stress, rather than remove it.
Honor employee boundaries
People often want to please you so much that they’ll violate the boundaries they set for themselves. You can’t let them. They may come to resent you in the long run, but also you’re there to protect them, and sometimes to keep them from doing harm to themselves by overwork.
How can you do that?
One way is to prevent people from taking work home, answering company email - which shouldn’t have been sent to them anyway - during nonbusiness hours, and especially when they’re on holiday. An effective policy might be to insist that employees hand in company mobiles when they’re on holiday so that they can’t be contacted. You must play your part. And don’t let anyone come to work while on leave, no matter how far behind they or you think they are.
Stress is something that we all need to keep us going; to get us to push that little bit through the next project, or to make the next deadline. But too much stress isn’t good for anyone, least of all your employees. If you want them to be productive and to remain motivated, then you must remove the things that cause bad stress.