By Brian Kreissl
Recently I've noticed a lot more discussion of the whole issue of workplace stress. While stress is an issue that's been around since the dawn of time, for some reason, it seems to have come to the forefront recently as a major issue impacting organizations, employees and HR professionals.
One factor behind the renewed focus on workplace stress seems to be the ongoing concerns about the state of the economy. Most people thought we'd be in some sort of economic recovery by now, yet concerns linger about a “double-dip” recession.
The debt crisis in the United States and Europe is a major issue for Canadian business due to the increasingly globalized economy. What happens in another corner of the world now has major impacts here in Canada.
We saw this with the recent earthquake and resultant nuclear meltdown in Japan. Factory shutdowns there led to supply chain hiccups in Canada and elsewhere.
Economic uncertainty elsewhere also impacts Canadian employers because they buy Canadian goods and services. Even though Canada was relatively well sheltered from the worst aspects of the global financial crisis, we've no doubt been impacted by problems elsewhere. Also of concern is the high Canadian dollar, which continues to cause problems for the manufacturing sector.
All of this impacts workplace stress. While we're not quite experiencing the “jobless recovery” we saw after the recession of the early 1990s, organizations are still operating in “lean and mean” mode. Being asked to do more with less is a recurring theme even now — more than three years after the financial crisis began.
It's little wonder so many employees are stressed out. Many people are now doing the work formerly done by two or even three people. Even when organizations are doing well, there's often a reluctance to hire more people.
If they're still working, many workers have to deal with the stress caused by being overworked due to hiring freezes and downsizing, and as a result of “survivor's guilt” in the wake of downsizing and layoffs.
Ongoing economic uncertainty also plays a part in the amount of stress people are experiencing. Workers can't help but be fearful about impending job losses.
Even the current “Occupy” movement can be seen as a major symptom of the problem. While Occupy would seem to be about looking for a greater piece of the economic pie for the “99 per cent,” as HR practitioners, we're aware lack of engagement is seldom just about the money. This is true on a societal as well as an organizational level.
Money is important — and there's no doubt many people are disgruntled at what they see as declining living standards amid ever higher salaries, bonuses and profits for the top “one per cent” — yet part of the problem surely can be traced back to workplace stress in the form of concerns about job losses and ever increasing expectations.
There are also concerns about adequacy of income on retirement, caused largely by lacklustre investment returns, the decline in defined benefit (DB) pension plans, decreased responsibility for pension plans by employers and increasing longevity. This can also lead to increased stress and worry.
What can employers do?
One positive aspect of the high Canadian dollar is employers can better afford to invest in high technology equipment and systems manufactured abroad, which can result in productivity improvements. Many experts agree now might be a good time to invest in infrastructure to boost productivity.
Surely this would help alleviate the stress faced by overworked employees while also giving them the sense their employers are providing them with the latest technology, as well as training to use that technology.
It might also be time to think about doing some hiring, even if such hiring consists largely of contingent workers — at least until we see some type of lasting recovery.
It’s a vicious circle when additional resources aren’t provided until financial results improve — and financial results don’t improve until additional resources are procured. At some point, it’s necessary to take a risk and give overworked teams the people and tools they need to be successful.
If that isn't feasible, employers should be trying to help employees better manage stress and change. It’s also important to help them prioritize, providing context so they can focus on activities that add the most value.
Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at email@example.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com. This blog post was based partially on a recent discussion of current trends in human resources management and employment law with the Consult Carswell Editorial Advisory Board.