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Stress should be a 4-letter word

Pressure seems to be contagious with so many people feeling under the gun

By Todd Humber

We made it through flu season relatively unscathed. Thank immunization, the warm weather or just a stroke of good luck — but the flu came in like a lamb and went out like one too.

But there’s another epidemic rippling through workplaces that there’s no easy antidote for — stress.

I can count on one hand the number of people who have told me recently they’re not stressed. Fellow blogger Brian Kreissl added more fuel to my fire with the first nine words of his post this week — “Stress is top of mind for me right now…”

The word stress seems like the word yawn. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Yawn. Yawn. And, for good measure, yawn. Now that you’ve read it, you’re going to yawn in the next 60 seconds. (And if you don’t, you’ll be consciously fighting the urge.)

It’s contagious. If someone says yawn, or actually yawns, you’re inevitably going to fall in line. (Keep resisting. But you’re going to yawn soon.)

Does stress have the same potential? It sure seems like it. Maybe just asking someone if they’re feeling stressed makes them want to say yes. Maybe it even raises their stress level by getting them thinking about how much is on their plate both at work and at home. Taking a step back and enumerating everything you have to accomplish in a day or a week can be overwhelming. Taking stock at the end of the day and realizing just how much you didn’t get done can be deflating.

In the workplace, maybe we’re all just suffering from the second quarter blues. Or maybe all the bad news about the economy is weighing heavily on our minds. Or perhaps the “do more with less” philosophy is taking a toll. Or maybe we’re all playing the good soldier, biting off more than we can chew.

The exact cause is difficult to pin, and varies by individual, but there’s no denying a lot of the workforce is stressed out. This is bad news for employers.

When you’re stressed, you can’t focus.

When you’re stressed, you’re more prone to errors.

When you’re stressed, you’re inevitably less engaged.

And that doesn’t even touch on the myriad health problems that accompany stress, which can quickly snowball into something much worse than a sleepless night or a general feeling of malaise.

Stress. It should be a four-letter word.

Stress is a bad thing for a strong organization. For a weakened firm, can it be fatal? Unfortunately, Canadians have a case study developing right in our own backyard.

Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion (RIM), the company behind the BlackBerry, has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons lately. The tech company has been battered by the bad economy, tough competition and a lack of strong leadership. Its market share has plunged along with its stock price.

Put yourself in the shoes of a RIM employee and imagine the stress level of having the sword of Damocles hovering over your head.

Media speculations have the company cutting anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 employees from its workforce of about 16,000. A good friend of mine who works for RIM made a tongue-in-cheek plea for me to get our news division, Reuters, to stop all the speculation because it was stressing employees out.

Being stressed because of a heavy workload is one thing. Toiling away with the threat your job could be cut at any moment, regardless of how hard you’re working, has to take a toll.

My buddy has the right attitude. He knows it’s out of his hands. He’s gone through it before, when RIM cut 2,000 positions last year. He continues to work hard and do what’s best for the company.

For RIM’s sake, let’s hope the bulk of his colleagues are viewing it the same way, lest the company’s demise become a self-fulfilling prophecy accelerated by a disengaged workforce.

Workers who don’t have the sword of Damocles constantly hanging over their heads need to keep that in mind. Not to take solace in the misfortune of others, but if you’re working for a company on solid ground — don’t take it for granted. Maybe that will ease a bit of the stress.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at  

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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