It’s not just you and it’s not just a perception — workplace stress really has been increasing over the past few years. Forty-six per cent of Canadian workers feel more stressed out than they were five years ago, and 53 per cent of workers globally feel more burnt out than they did five years previous, according to a Regus study of 22,000 professionals in more than 100 countries.
But for employers, allowing a high-stress workplace is a high-stakes game. More than one-third of workers (37 per cent) have considered quitting in the last year because of the amount of stress they face on the job, according to a separate survey of 1,052 workers by MetLife in the United Kingdom. A full 47 per cent said their job is stressful on a day-to-day basis — not just occasionally — while 48 per cent said stress levels have increased in the last year.
Those rising stress levels are due to a combination of factors, said Wayne Berger, vice-president at Regus in Toronto.
“One is technology. So advancements in technology have been incredible over the last 10 years, but the reality is we’re all just connected at all times now — 24-7,” he said, adding that can make it difficult to disconnect from office stress, even during off-hours.
Another factor is the fact that employees really do have to do more with less as a tough labour market means colleagues and co-workers often aren’t replaced when they leave, said Berger.
“We’re still seeing this shift from companies — especially after 2008 when we went through the economic recession — companies are rebounding well these days but there hasn’t been the complete influx of job replacement. So Canadians are feeling more stress and pressure because of the feeling of being understaffed. People are asked to do more and more beyond just the core scope of their job responsibilities.”
Other factors include globalization — the fact that there is just more competition regardless of industry — and the sedentary nature of many office jobs, said Berger.
“Just this notion of being tethered to the desk from eight to five without the opportunity to break up the day… whether it’s getting some exercise throughout the day or just getting the chance to break away to some different scenery.”
The grass looks greener
Added to all of those pressures and stressors is the fact it’s very easy for employees’ eyes to wander. In the age of LinkedIn and online job posts, employees who are feeling fed up, stressed out or run down can apply elsewhere at the click of a button.
“Everything is posted — everything is available online and you see it, so I think certainly that can cause some feelings of angst,” said Marie-Hélène Budworth, associate professor at York University in Toronto.
“Certainly, there is a bit more of ‘the grass is greener’ because you can see into other places. But getting those opportunities is still quite difficult. It’s very difficult to move right now — except in some high-demand areas, it’s really difficult to find a new job,” she said. “Looking and actually getting another opportunity are two very different things.”
But that’s no reason for employers to be complacent — losing employees, particularly high-performers, is still a very real risk in high-stress workplaces. That’s why it’s important for leaders to express their appreciation and value toward employees, said Budworth.
“Letting them know that the extra efforts they’re putting forward are not only helping the leader or manager but helping the organization as well, and that they’re valued because of that,” she said.
“Under those (high-stress) situations, it’s also a time where it’s important to create… other things within the workplace that are enjoyable. So, opportunities to be around each other, to do things that are engaging or interesting or just nice, is also a useful activity.”
When employees are doing work that goes above and beyond their job description, giving them credit and recognition is a very important piece, said Budworth.
“(And) it’s something that they wouldn’t get naturally in the structure that exists for providing feedback.”
Providing some flexibility and autonomy in the way employees are able to work is also key, said Berger.
“We’re seeing a real shift today across corporations, not just in Canada but globally, in which a flexible workspace is becoming not just more acceptable but it really is becoming the norm. And it is something that companies are offering up as a benefit to attract great talent.”
Managers also play a key role in terms of being aware of employees’ stress levels and any warning signs they are disengaging or thinking of leaving, said Budworth.
“The job of a manager is to be aware of what’s going on with the people that work with them. So part of it is for the manager to know when the individual they’re working with is satisfied with their working conditions,” she said.
“The manager’s core job is around managing the flow of work — and part of that is looking at the people doing the work and taking note of whether or not they have everything they need, you’re helping them to remove barriers and roadblocks to their success, and you’re managing the circumstances for them so that they can be successful. So part of your job is to be checking in with them to ensure that they’re motivated, but not overly stressed.
“It’s similar to the idea that there should be no surprises. So managers who are doing their jobs well… will get some signals directly from their employees as they are working.”
Something that resonates with a lot of employers is framing the issue in terms of the employee’s “personal ROI,” said Richard Earle, managing director at the Canadian Institute of Stress in Toronto.
“Dealing with the stress problem should yield win-win solutions. When you boil this down to doing more with less… if you drill down just one step, (people feel) that we’re doing more for less. ‘What am I getting back for what I’m putting in?’ really seems to be the question,” he said. “That personal ROI is really what people are after.”
Even if employees aren’t leaving and turning over, it’s still a question employers need to consider to combat presenteeism and burnout within the organization, he said.
“It is the people who stay and just hang on by their fingernails that’s the greater lose-lose problem.”
Employers need to develop a greater awareness of employee stress and burnout, just as they have with mental health issues in general, said Budworth.
“Certainly the universal experience, the thing that affects everybody in the workplace, is stress. So, yes, that should be a primary concern for managers and leaders because everybody feels it,” she said.
“But it’s also something that drives people, so a certain amount of stress is tied to motivation. So it’s always been this thing that is a bit of a balancing act — to provide enough challenge and motivation... without driving people into this place of discomfort.”
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