Stress Can Be Managed: Lessons For Leaders

Robert L. Veninga, Ph.D.

It's no secret that stress in the workplace has increased. Smaller profit margins, increased competition, more government regulation has created a complex and challenging work environment. What can you do to diminish stress?

First, unless you absolutely need to, do not restructure and downsize your work-force. And don't let anyone convince you that restructuring is a panacea for the issues you are facing. Here are the facts: a review of 52 studies of corporate restructuring involving several thousand companies found that on average, organizational downsizing had little, if any, positive impact on earnings or stock market performance. And regrettably, 70% of U.S. companies report serious morale problems caused by years of upheaval and restructuring.

The toll down-sizing takes on employee morale is staggering. A 42 year old manager who lost a valued job said: "You are never the same. Panic sets in. You wonder how you are going to pay the mortgage and meet your obligations. And you always wonder if the loss of a job was somehow your fault."

The first suggestion in managing stress is to keep your work-force stable. The second is this: reexamine workloads. Today there is a tacit expectation in many companies that you cannot work too hard or too long. According to Fortune Magazine, a new corporate model dubbed "High Commitment" has sprung up that suggests life should revolve around work and not much else. Says a former executive: "Nobody ever got up on a desk and said, 'Work harder'. But somebody would call an occasional meeting at 8:00 A.M. Then it became the regular 8:00 A.M meeting. There was the occasional 7:00 A.M. meeting. And the dinner meetings. It just keeps spreading."

Fortunately there are companies that are recognizing that if they want to improve productivity they should actually shorten the work week. When Metro Plastics Technologies in Columbus, Indiana diminished the number of hours worked by employees, customer returns in the second half of the year dropped 72% compared to the first half - an indication of an improved product. Costs for parts in need of additional work also fell. At a company where job openings stood unfilled for months, hundreds of highly qualified applicants now regularly submit their resumes.

I cannot over-emphasize this point: workloads of employees must be carefully addressed. We simply can't beat people into the ground anymore.

Third, unleash employee creativity. It is amazing but true: when employees are given permission to unleash their creativity, stress goes down. Productivity improves. Absenteeism declines. And morale soars. Doubt this fact? In a study of 1,400 employees by the consulting firm Tepner-Tregoe, two-thirds of the workers stated that their employer was operating with less than half the brain power available. That's a tragedy. Not just for the company. But for the employee. If you want to energize your workforce, tap into their creativity.

I cannot overstate the empowerment that comes when employees are asked to unleash their creativity. I think of a nurse manager who can barely contain her excitement about an innovative staffing plan that will improve the quality of care while reducing costs. Or I think of an occupational physician who smiled broadly as he described a new chair he designed to eliminate back problems and reduce worker's compensation costs. Or I think of a high school teacher who discovered that Hollywood films can keep restless teenagers involved in classroom deliberations. If you want to manage stress in the workplace, give employees a new measure of freedom.

We now come to the fourth strategy for managing stress and this places the responsibility squarely on your shoulders: leaders must manage the stress in their own life if they are to be credible. Why? Employees look to you - their leader - as a role model. If they see calmness, they will be calm. If you take vacations, they will also. If they perceive that there is within you an inner-strength, a quiet confidence will be in them too.

How do you personally manage stress? I think you will find these words comforting and useful:

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everyone will respect you.

Tao Te Ching

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"Bob Veninga brings warmth, humor and clear insights to some of our most pressing human and business problems."

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Center for Mental Health and Media
Harvard Medical School


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