As I was recently going through some old papers, I came across a letter that my good friend and fraternity brother, Ron Sparling, and I had sent to the general manager of a General Motors Corp. (GM) division where another close friend and fraternity brother had worked.
Our fraternity brother, Mark Horvath, had died of a heart attack at the age of 39 after nearly a year-long stretch of new, high-stress job responsibilities. In our letter, we recognized that a simple cause-and-effect relationship between the stress and his death was, of course, impossible to establish. We also acknowledged that the problem was not unique to his division or to GM. We did, however, suggest that stress can affect health in a negative way and asked the general manager to look into that issue and try to reduce the job-related stress in his division.
Since then I don’t think things have changed much. As a matter of fact, they may have gotten worse, at least in the United States. That’s certainly what I read about and hear from people who currently hold the kind of jobs I held in those days. Many of my friends and colleagues, especially those in the for-profit world, speak of their 24-7 world where they must always seek balance and be aware of their health and the continually increasing demands put upon them. They speak of walking a razor’s edge between the risk of losing their jobs and losing their lives and families.
My guess is that many of you have stressful jobs, and perhaps some of you unintentionally contribute to the general stress level in your organizations. As we said in our letter those many years ago, people tend to deal with stress in different ways—some of us get headaches, some develop ulcers, some drink too much or take drugs, some lose their marriage and friends, and some of us die. Those are not good outcomes for us personally or for our organizations.
While the research seems sketchy, according to the findings in Organizational Behavior, by Stephen P. Robbins and Timothy A. Judge (Pearson Education/Prentice Hall, 2009), some short-term, moderate levels of stress can increase job performance; however, additional stress, especially over time, causes job dissatisfaction, anxiety, irritability, boredom, procrastination, and lower performance. These outcomes from additional stress suggest we may want to better control the level of stress on the job and our reactions to it.
Robbins and Judge recommend clear, achievable goals with a good feedback system to reduce stress on the job. They suggest providing additional employee control with increased responsibility, and more meaningful work and autonomy. They also recommend developing better organizational communication, and giving time off for sabbaticals and wellness programs.
Other suggestions, as in How Healthy Is Your Organization?: The Leader’s Guide to Curing Corporate Diseases and Promoting Joyful Cultures, by Imre Lövey and Manohar S. Nadkarni with Eszter Erdélyi (Praeger Publishers, 2007), are to ask employees about their concerns, acknowledge them, and act in response to those concerns. These three authors also tell a fun story about one executive who takes the time to construct brilliant e-mails during his 40-hour week and then saves them to send on the weekend, so he appears to be on the clock 24/7 while committing the weekends to his family.
As I consider telling my own reactions to on-the-job stress, I recall that I believe stress is grounded in some combination of each employee’s world view and the culture of the organization in which he operates. A person’s world view and organizational or even departmental cultures are hard to change. To begin with, they are frequently unacknowledged and even unknown. I’m not talking about the value statements posted on office walls or the perspectives that so glibly roll off our tongues when asked our opinions. I’m talking about the deeply held, almost-never-discussed beliefs we hold both individually and as organizations about how the world works. These, I think, are the beliefs that affect stress levels and how we behave.
Now I’m ready to tell you about how I have handled stress as a middle manager in the past. I am fortunate to say this has only happened a few times in my long career. When I have felt stressed, I have taken the additional time necessary to try to figure out the cause. In those days, I didn’t fully appreciate the power of culture and frequently made superficial suggestions about organizational behavior change. Once I had figured out that the organizational behavior was not about to change, I worked to move to another organization, maybe even within the larger company. I was always lucky enough to get out before I got fired. I believe W. Edwards Deming said, “Raise your hand three times, and you’re a marked man.” I was usually lucky. In hindsight, my timing may not have been good, but it all worked out for the better. An organization that creates unhealthy stress in our lives does not deserve our effort. As W. Edwards Deming advocated, our organizations should bring joy to our lives.
I hope this month’s column has been, at least, a little useful. Stress is everywhere these days. It need not be part of the workplace. Let’s do something about it. As always, I treasure your comments and questions. I’m at email@example.com.