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How to address the risks and effects of workplace stress

Recently, global consulting firm Towers Watson partnered with the National Business Group on Health, seeking insight into the most pressing workforce issues facing employees. Compiled in the study Staying@Work, the results identified three top stressors: inadequate staffing, low pay or low increases in pay and unclear or conflicting job expectations. Similar research from other consulting firms indicates that many high-performing employees not only leave companies but also vacate leadership development programs due to stress.

For the purpose of this post, we redefined the word “stress” to ‘something that is not working.’ Many factors contribute to this state of disequilibrium, including the attitude of the stressed employee, how they see their life and what they do about it. While the ability of the leader to powerfully coach, navigate conflict and stimulate innovation and growth is paramount, sometimes countering workplace stress is not in the control of the firm or its leaders at all. That said, the following actions can help leaders address some of the more obvious risks and effects of workplace stress and potentially retain high value employees on a long-term basis.

1. Understand the drivers behind employee stress

Clarity is key here. Employee stress may vary across functions, teams, divisions and companies. Take the time to determine the specific cause. Heavy workloads don’t always translate automatically to employee stress. Leaders who seek to uncover the multilayered quality of employee stress will generate a clearer understanding of key stressors, rather than a vague assumption.

2. Consider team dynamics

Managing employee stress may be a simple matter of reconfiguring ineffective team dynamics. If high-potential turnover occurs regularly, watch how the team operates. It’s the role of the leader to create an environment that ensures healthy team relationships, equitable work load sharing, respectful communication and effective conflict resolution. Invest in team effectiveness training if any dynamics appear unhealthy.

3. Make sure onboarding follows through

In hiring, accurately describe the open position, opportunity, expectation, growth potential and any downside. Avoid overselling the position simply to fill it. Leaders who candidly discuss the pros and cons of a challenging role with a high value candidate are far more likely to earn that candidate’s trust. Communicate with new hires every three months to ascertain if onboarding programs remain thorough enough to adequately prepare them.

4. Continually connect the employee with the big picture

Clarify where the high-potential fits. Oftentimes, employees do not feel valued or understand their integral contribution to corporate growth. Solicit opinions and ideas from employees, organize lunches with senior executives and mentoring programs for personal and professional growth. Foster platforms for innovation – especially for new hires – and take advantage of any and all opportunities to educate employees on how their roles support the bottom line.

5. Realize that being a leader is a 24/7 job

Once the stressors have been revealed, don’t let the results sit in a drawer. If onboarding programs fall short, make the necessary changes. Implement required team manoeuvres – if the results demand some staffing changes or process improvements, bite the bullet and follow through.

6. Keep accurate data

Leaders can rely on data to support their observations. If the numbers indicate that one department bleeds high-potentials at an alarming rate, work with your HR and talent colleagues to use that data to fuel change. Similarly, make sure that any changes made are accurately benchmarked and measured, so that improvements over time move beyond anecdotal and become part of the firm’s hiring practices.

7. Don’t underestimate the importance of money

Now, throwing money at stressed employees is not a retention panacea. That said, leaders who pay high-potential employees well and implement the changes noted above are far more likely to gain the benefit of a long-term, engaged employee than those who implement changes without increasing compensation.

Last words

Lastly and importantly, leaders need to understand that most leadership development and reward programs miss what employees seek and value for the simple reason that honest employee feedback is difficult to come by. Few if any employees will risk their financial futures to express what they truly feel about their roles, colleagues and managers—often the only truthful feedback a leader receives is an employee’s resignation. When all efforts fail, a solid exit interview process that generates actionable data remains a leader’s most valuable and effective tool.

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Nikoleta & Associates

Business Strategists, Leadership Development Designers, Executive Coaches at Nikoleta & Associates
With an attitude that encourages growth, Nikoleta & Associates provides executive coaching, leadership development and change management services to clients in multiple industries including construction, consumer packaged goods, professional services, technology, financial services and health care. Through their blog posts, the dynamic team at Nikoleta & Associates offers practical advice for organizations on effective leadership strategies that align to business goals.Read more
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