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Stress fractures

Management | February 1, 2015 | By:

Don’t let workplace stress undermine your operations.

Fortunately, headline-making instances of deadly violence are a rare consequence of workplace stress. More often, it simmers just beneath the surface, eating away at morale, productivity and profits. And if you think that workplace stress doesn’t exist in your business, think again.

“Emotional pain exists in every organization at some point, and it takes a heavy toll,” says Peter J. Frost, former professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia, Canada. “Too frequently, employees have negative experiences in the workplace that leave hopes dashed, goals derailed or confidence undermined.”

According to Frost, individual employees or managers often step into emotionally poisoned work situations to help deal with the pain involved. These “toxic handlers,” as he calls them, frequently suffer more emotional and physical damage than the people they are trying to help.

“Sometimes, the major ‘toxic handler’ is the owner or manager,” says Frost, “and that can mean serious damage to both the organization and the individual.”

What is workplace stress?

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker, and can lead to poor health and even injury.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) offers this definition: “Workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands.”

How do you know if an employee is having trouble coping with stress?

According to CMHA, there is a variety of possible symptoms of workplace stress:

Physical: headaches, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, chest pain, shortness of breath, pounding heart, high blood pressure, muscle aches, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, increased perspiration, fatigue, insomnia, frequent illness.

Psychosocial: anxiety, irritability, sadness, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, hypersensitivity, apathy, depression, slowed thinking or racing thoughts; feelings of helplessness, hopelessness or of being trapped.

Behavioral: overeating or loss of appetite, impatience, quickness to argue, procrastination, increased use of alcohol or drugs, increased smoking, withdrawal or isolation from others, neglect of responsibility, poor job performance, poor personal hygiene, change in religious practices, change in close family relationships.

Regardless of the symptoms or lack of them, workplace stress, if left untended, eventually can lead to employee turnover, reduced efficiency, illness or even death. Absenteeism, illness, alcoholism, petty internal politics, bad or snap decisions, indifference and apathy and lack of motivation or creativity are all visible by-products of an over-stressed workplace.

What causes job stress?

Most experts agree that stress on the job results from the relationship between the worker and working conditions. However, opinions differ as to which of those two factors is the primary cause of workplace stress. One school of thought suggests that personality characteristics and the ability of the worker to cope are the primary factors that determine whether conditions on the job will result in workplace stress. In other words, conditions that are stressful for one machine operator may not pose a problem for another.

Personality differences aside, most scientific studies suggest that some common working conditions will be stressful to most people. Things such as the imposition of unreasonable workloads, uneven or biased treatment by managers, and lack of control over working conditions are virtually certain to cause workplace stress, according to most experts. Supporters of this viewpoint argue that improved working conditions and more attention to job design are the most important ways to minimize job stress.

Frost suggests that there are effective techniques for minimizing the harm of workplace stress that are applicable no matter what the cause. He defines “toxic handlers” as leaders, managers or other employees who deal with something as potentially volatile as emotional pain in the workplace. Their compassion often takes the form of noticing and feeling the pain of a co-worker and taking action to help the other person heal. He offers these suggestions for anyone taking on the role of voluntary or involuntary “toxic handler”:

Slow down. Many people are going too fast to notice pain in others. Symptoms of workplace stress present at a slower rate or with a different cadence than the work we do or the schedule we pursue to make the business successful. As a result, we overlook them.


Listen. Managers often don’t notice stress symptoms in employees because they are too busy telling them how they would solve the problem. Effective “toxic handlers” put their full attention on the person in pain.Â

Retain your sensitivity. Too often, we miss symptoms in others because we have become numbed by the pace of the competitive business world.

Be confident. Even if we see and feel the pain of workplace stress in others, we may feel that we don’t know what to do about it. Remember that simply being present for someone can help the healing process. You don’t have to be an expert. Just listen.

Take action. If there is a cancer in your workplace, perhaps in the form of a toxic employee, it may be necessary to change that employee’s job if you can’t change the behavior—or to let that employee go.

Put people first. Watch for a toxic company policy or practice based solely on numbers and abstractions that overlook the human equation.Â

Plant seeds. When you see employee stress, or anticipate it due to changes in the workplace, find ways ahead of time to prepare people to deal with it.

Some stress in the workplace is normal. By some definitions, stress is the factor that provides people with the energy and motivation needed to stay creative and productive.

Too much stress, however, can have extremely negative consequences. When workplace stress rises to the point where damage is being done and productivity starts to decline, someone in the organization usually surfaces as the “toxic handler.” While it could be anyone in the organization, very often it will be the boss. Frost offers these suggestions for avoiding harm to the person trying to help:

Leave the job at work. Don’t take other people’s problems home with you.

Stay fit. Drain the physical effects of workplace stress through regular exercise.

Stay positive. Stay aware that you are helping others, and feel good about doing it.

Say “no” more often. Don’t take on every case, and don’t take on the problems of those you are helping.

Create a sanctuary—and use it frequently.

Give the job a name. This is meaningful work, valuable to the employees you are helping and the health of the workplace.

Put family first. Don’t let workplace stress, yours or your employees’, cut you off from your partner, family and friends.

“We live in times where there is much pain and suffering in and around organizations. While we can’t avoid stress and pain in the workplace—what we can and must do is find better ways to manage it,” says Frost.

“There is still much to be learned about toxicity in organizations and how to handle it. But my vision is for managers and their organizations to take up the challenge to safeguard the health and well-being of their people, and to offer compassion to those who hurt—an effort that is both a noble undertaking and eminently practical.”

William J. Lynott is a business writer based in Rydal, Pa.

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