Based on a critical review of theory and research, what advice would you give managers regarding how to reduce employee stress?
Employee stress is becoming an increasing problem for many managers across the world to combat. It has escalated to such an extent that the World Health Organisation has declared “occupational stress as a worldwide epidemic” (Avey, et al., 2009, p. 677). Furthermore, it can hold a number of negative impacts on the performance and profitability of a company, so managers should be consistently attempting to reduce the levels of employee stress in the workforce.
This essay will define what exactly employee stress is and what the predominant factors are that are affecting its rise. Furthermore, an analysis will be conducted on the negative effects that employee stress can have on the workforce and company, and how managers should try and reduce the levels of employee stress in their workforce.
Stress can be defined as “the physiological and psychological reaction, either consciously or subconsciously, to a perceived threat or undesirable condition beyond one’s immediate capacity to cope” (Chaing, et al., 2010, p. 26). Employee stress can have a number of negative effects on employee performance, with problems in health, increased accidents and burnouts being common issues for stressed out employees (Bernard & Krupat, 1994).
A variety of researchers attribute different factors to causing stress. These factors are commonly referred to as ‘stressors’. Colligan & Higgins (2006) attributes technological change, global competitive pressures, toxic work environments and managerial bullying as the main components to an increase in employee stress.
Furthermore, a study by Dahl (2010) heavily pins organisational change to the main factor that can impact on employee stress. It is thought that the majority of companies do not pay heed to the psychological affects that organisational change can have on employees, as they often focus on how the company’s performance will be benefitted. Primarily, organisational change can result in firm failure (Haveman, 1992; Barnett & Freeman, 2001). However, other theorists suggest that “the emotional and psychological wellbeing of employees are potentially affected by organizational change” (Dahl, 2010, p. 2).
Although outdated, one of the most comprehensive frameworks that identify stressors is provided by Murphy (1995, p. 42). He lists thirteen key factors that attribute to an increase in employee stress, which include; physical environment, role conflict, role ambiguity, interpersonal conflict, job future ambiguity, job control, employment opportunities, work load, variance in work load, responsibilities, underutilisation, demands and shift work. Furthermore, he suggests that these factors can be affected by “non-work factors” such as domestic demands. However, these factors would generally be out of the control of management. Murphy concludes that all of these factors that cause employee stress can lead to job dissatisfaction, accidents, complaints, substance abuse or even more serious, illnesses.
Although it seems that employee stress can only hold negative outcomes for a company, it has been found that it can provide a number of positive benefits. This can include increased creativity (Le Fevre, et al., 2003) and enhanced performance (Marino, 1997). However, despite the possible benefits that employee stress can hold, it also provides a plethora of more serious and negative effects. It is because of this negativity that managers must closely watch, and actively attempt to reduce employee stress.
Reducing Employee Stress
There are a variety of studies which outline a number of different ways in which a company can reduce employee stress. A study by Murphy (1995) outlines two significant ways in which to combat employee stress. These are:
- Employee Assistant Programmes (EAP): These programmes have existed in the workforce for over 70 years now, with their main focus to treat “troubled” employees in the workforce. However, as workplace stress got more and more attention, it became more about providing wellbeing and care for all employees in a workforce. The programmes have since been expanded to deal with more intense stress relating incidents, such as the loss of a fellow employee, with these called stressor-specific programmes. Although these programmes seem positive, they do have their downfalls. This is primarily the fact that it is hard for feedback to be related back to managers, and that the programmes do not analyse how the organisation may be affecting stress, but focus on employees’ personality or characteristics.
- Human Resource Management (HRM): The responsibilities of HRM can vary across different companies, but usually include the following; personnel management issues, performance appraisal, discrimination, team building and labour relations. Although not specific to employee stress, all of these areas can be attributing factors to employee stress levels. Furthermore, they act as an opposite to EAPs, as they act in relation to the organisation and not in relation to an employee’s personal traits or characteristics.
The study goes on to conclude that the best way to manage employee stress is to combine both of these practices. This allows employee stress to be monitored from a personal level with the EAPs and an organisational level from HRM.
Furthermore, the study by Avey, et.al.(2009) outlines a more modern approach on how managers can reduce employee stress. They call this approach the ‘Emerging Positive Approach’. This approach basically aims to focus on the positive side of things, highlighting employee strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. This can be called ‘Positive Organisational Behaviour’ (POB), which is “the study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively managed for performance improvement” (Luthans, 2002, p. 59).
Although this approach doesn’t specifically address employee stress, the nature of it helps reduce or even avoid it. As it seeks to highlight the strengths, it should increase performance of employees and allow them to work in an environment that is enjoyable to them. Instead of waiting until an employee is unhappy or stressed, this approach will actively try to combat the thirteen factors that Murphy defines as key ‘stressors’.
The aforementioned approaches all rely on heavy involvement from internal or external forces. However, there are a number of smaller things that managers can do to try and maintain a happy workforce and reduce employee stress. These are outlined by (Hengst, 2015), and include:
- Support management: Management should be supporting their employees on all levels of the company hierarchy. Employee stress is obviously important to deter, but managers can also get stressed in the workplace. Maintaining support through every level of the organisation helps ensure that stress is not passed on from a manager to their employees or team.
- Little rewards: Giving little rewards to employees can help reduce employee stress significantly. This could be in the form of bonuses for reaching certain goals, or a quarterly trivial reward system that hands out achievements of certificates. This does not cost the organisation a lot of money, but will help reduce the levels of employee stress.
- Encourage fun: Although the workplace must maintain a serious atmosphere, there is no harm for encouraging employees’ to have fun. This can be organised after work, or during particularly slow times of business. Holding parties or events to encourage fun also provides an opportunity to build upon team-working and iron out any interpersonal issues.
- Healthy lifestyle: Employees should be trained to work in a safe manner, and to not be afraid to ask for support if needed. Looking after employee wellbeing is one of the most significant factors for reducing employee stress. Any workplace injuries will most likely cause stress to the individuals involved, but may also cause tension with other employees in the company.
All of these factors do not need rigid implementation, but can be done throughout the year to maintain a positive work environment and reduce employee stress levels. They are all reliant on a manager being involved with their employees, and taking a genuine interest in maintaining employee wellbeing.
It becomes quickly apparent that employee stress can cause many issues for a company and an individual. The negative effects heavily outweigh the limited number of positive effects that it can hold. Although there are a number of external forces that can effect employee stress, a lot of responsibility is placed on managers on how to reduce levels of employee stress.
One of the earliest methods was with the use of EAPs. However, this did not take into consideration how the organisation is affecting stress levels, and so a collaboration of EAPs and HRM is a more optimum method. Furthermore, as an EAP can be sourced externally, it reduces some of the responsibility on the manager to reduce employee stress levels, as they only need to monitor how HRM are handling any issues.
Furthermore, the more modern approach to reducing employee stress is to stop it, before it can begin. This is shown through the emerging positive approach, as it encourages companies to maintain a positive atmosphere in the workplace, and deter employee stress before it can begin.
Although there are a variety of approaches to managing or reducing employee stress, there is no quick fix. Managers should be constantly monitoring employee stress levels, and implementing consistent processes to help reduce it. Stress levels cannot be reduced by a one-time incentive, but must be slowly reduced over time by the help and support of the management team.
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