Stress levels higher for engaged employees

Key workers at risk of illness, absenteeism and turnover without employer intervention

A workplace’s key employees may be at the greatest risk of experiencing high levels of work stress, according to a new study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.  

In a survey of 2,737 workers in Alberta, 18 per cent reported their job was “highly stressful.” The probability of describing a job as “highly stressful” significantly increased for workers who were managers or professionals, responsible and engaged. 

“I’ve gotten comments from several places saying, ‘Well, didn’t we know this? If you’re invested, you’re more stressed,’” said Carolyn Dewa, co-author of the study and head of CAMH’s work and well-being research and evaluation program. “But now, we are able to quantify it and that helps businesses recognize it.”  

Employees who are more engaged are likely faced with increased responsibilities, which can lead to increased stress, said Wayne Forster, president of Forster Emerson consulting firm in Halifax. This has become especially true lately when companies have been downsizing and employees are gaining responsibilities to account for the loss of resources, said Dewa.  

 “It’s harder to generate a profit in this environment but (engaged employees) want to see their companies be successful and they feel a greater burden, so they are more likely to feel stressed,” she said.  

Employees are twice as likely to report high stress if they believe their poor job performance could negatively affect others or the company, found the study.  

“Part of it is because they are more conscientious so they may pay more attention to their work, be more detail-oriented or feel responsible and take on the company’s success,” said Dewa.  

Many highly engaged employees spend more time on the job to complete all their responsibilities, said Forster. This increase in time spent working means less time for recreational activities, exercise or other things that help employees cope with stress, he said. Variable hours, such as being on-call, doing shift work, having a compressed work week or travelling for work also increases the odds of being stressed at work, found the study. This type of schedule may create personal or family conflict as it interferes with home life, which can lead to stress, said Forster.

There are many things an employer can do to help lessen the stress of  key talent, said Dewa. 

“The most effective intervention is when the employer and the employee work together to figure out what can be done to give the employee everything he or she needs,” she said. 

At the British Columbia Institute for Technology (BCIT), the 2,200 employees have access to a wide range of training sessions to help them manage stress in their personal lives, said Colleen Fostvelt, manager of total compensation at the head office in Burnaby, B.C. 

“We offer lunch and learns for things like finances, relationships, personal wellness and elder care,” said Fostvelt. “We get a pretty good turnout and the response is really positive.” 

BCIT offers a yearly health clinic where employees can relax with aromatherapy and a shiatsu massage. Employees are also given free access to an on-campus gym where they can participate in yoga, Pilates or spinning classes, said Fostvelt.

Employers should also try to be understanding of employees’ work-life struggles, said Forster.  

“Employers should be accommodating and have a little flexibility for special circumstances,” he said. “Allowing workers to occasionally work from home, leave early to pick up their kids or understand other personal situations goes a long way.”  

Managers at BCIT can work from home when they need to and the organization’s philosophy is to work with employees on work-life balance issues, said Fostvelt. 

“There’s lots of flexibility and we try to do the best we can,” she said. “If someone has an emergency at home, they can easily go home and deal with that or, if they need to take time off or adjust their schedule for things like elder care, we encourage the managers to work with them.” 

Providing clear expectations for performance is another way to help reduce stress. Many high performers are likely to be perfectionists and they often put additional pressure on themselves, said Forster.

They may take on more than is expected if there is some uncertainty surrounding their role, so very clear expectations can help reduce a lot of stress, he said. If a manager is approached by an employee under stress, he should try to be understanding, help in the best way he can and point out available resources such as an employee assistance program, said Dewa. 

“It is important employees have access to resources that address their mental health concerns,” said Dewa. “In the long run, these interventions can help save some of the annual $17 billion lost in productivity in Canada.”

Excessive stress can lead to many types of illnesses, increased absenteeism and a high turnover rate, said Forster. In turn, this can lead to a loss of customer relationships, productivity and key talent.  

 “From a business perspective, it’s in a company’s best interest to support these (key) workers,” said Dewa. “Employers should be asking, ‘What am I doing to reduce stress in my most valuable people?’”

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