Anyone who has ever worked knows that stress is part of the workplace. Stress in itself is not bad, in fact, we can’t live without it. Applying the correct amount of stress hardens our muscles, sharpens our minds, and strengthens our spirits. It is when we move from this “good” type of stress into distress that things begin to go wrong. The fact is, most people who work are feeling pressure from things going on both inside the workplace and outside the workplace. Let’s explore…
There are seven common stressors that effect how people feel about the workplace:
- Being out of sync with one’s career values
Consistently applying burn out skills rather than motivated skills
Being delegated responsibility without authority
Being expected to produce more work with fewer resources
Job and career uncertainty and insecurity
The pace of change
Balancing family and work obligations
A combination of some or all of these seven stressors is the root cause of most, if not all, stress in the workplace. The indicators pointed out by many workplace surveys (working harder, feeling overwhelmed, work/life time priorities, irritability and frustration, zoning out with TV, feelings of helplessness, etc.) can be viewed as symptoms of these underlying root causes. Stress can be manifested by something as benign as someone having a tiff with a coworker to something as tragic as a disgruntled worker harming others. Following is a brief overview of each of the seven workplace stressors.
- Being Out Of Sync With One’s Career Values
Put simply, career values are the personal principles or standards that govern our behavior in the workplace and that are important in our overall career decisions. Examples include job flexibility, time freedom, preferring either a fast- or slow-paced work setting, working alone, working with others, helping society, monetary reward, job stability, and so on. It is important that workers narrow down and define their 5 to 10 core career values. These core career values then become decision making and assessment points for people to measure and see if where they are working and what they are doing at work is in sync with their values. It is when someone is not in sync with her values that stress occurs. For example, if Jane’s top career value is work/life balance, but she is spending 80 hour per week at work, has not taken a family vacation in two years, and consistently misses her children’s school events; she has a values clash and stress occurs. The more she works, the greater the stress.
- Consistently Applying “Burn Out” Skills Rather Than Motivated Skills
Skills are what people bring to the table to get work done. Budgeting, supervising, editing, computer programming, training, designing websites, etc., are examples of skills.
Motivated skills are the things that a person does well and likes to do. Burns out skills are the things a person does well but does not like to do. If someone is constantly applying his or her burn out skills rather than his or her motivated skills on the job, performance will begin to decrease, motivation is lost, and eventually “burn out” occurs.
Why don’t people always use and apply their motivated skills in the workplace? Most companies have a performance management system or performance appraisal process. It is in these systems and processes that motivated skills can be sabotaged. For example:
Sam, an account manager in a healthcare organization, has always been good at working with people, getting others to buy into his ideas, and documenting his work results. He completes a motivated skills assessment and learns that his main motivated skills (what he likes to do very much and is very good at doing) are employee training, sales, and writing. His burn out skills (what he is very good at doing but does not like to do) turn out to be planning and budgeting. His supervisor invites him to the annual appraisal meeting and the following conversation ensues:
Supervisor: “Sam, you did such a great job on the budget last year that this year instead of having you just do the planning and budgeting for our department, I’m going to ask that you do the planning and budgeting for the entire company. Again, you were so thorough and did such a great job that I think you should be rewarded.”
Sam: (Afraid to appear ungrateful and possibly jeopardize his job). “Well, thanks, but I…”
Supervisor: “Now don’t worry. I know working on the company-wide budget is going to take a lot of time. As such, I am revamping your account manager position and taking all of your training, sales, and report writing tasks off your plate. That should free you up to work strictly on planning and budgeting.”
Unless Sam speaks up and finds a positive way to negotiate himself back to what he likes to do and is good at doing, he will experience burn out, usually sooner rather than later. This burn out will lead to decreased motivation, which leads to less productivity, which leads to poor performance appraisals, and ultimately could result in Sam losing his job.
- Being Delegated Responsibility Without Authority
This is a classic stress builder and is occurring more and more in organizations. Many people, especially those who have been with the company for a period of time, become taken for granted. Because they are always there and always willing to pitch in, it is often assumed that they will take on more and more work and responsibility. In essence, this creates a vicious cycle – as soon as one task or project is completed, it is assumed these loyal people will take on the next one with no consideration of their own time or motivational needs.
Because of the fast pace in most businesses these days, it is a common flaw that this work is assigned with no real structure in place as to who has the authority to carry it out – kind of a “just do it and don’t ask too many questions” approach. People in this position are often under self-imposed stress and end up working longer hours than many others in the organization, including the people who do the delegating.
- Being Expected To Produce More Work With Fewer Resources And For Less Rewards
As managers are being asked to do more with less, they in turn pass this along to their work groups. This creates a see-saw of stress that bounces up and down the organizational chain. It is assumed that people will not push back on either of these points because it is an “employer’s market.” That is, there are more people looking for good jobs than there are good jobs available and the added stress of job security is imposed (more on this later.)
Along with the challenge of doing more with less, many employee benefits and/or reward programs are being “revised” or cut back. For example, many companies no longer carry over unused vacation from one year to the next…if you don’t use it you lose it. The irony being that it is harder to take time off because there is so much work to do and if a person does take a week’s vacation, the amount of work that piles up while out of the office kicks the stress drive into high gear once she returns to work. As such, many people don’t take a true vacation but take work with them or come into the office during vacation times just to keep the work from piling up too high. Holiday shutdown between Christmas and New Year’s is also being scaled back by many organizations. Promotions are tougher to attain. Some employers are even tampering with maternity leave by proposing a variety of flexible work schedules to dissuade employees from even taking leave. These “incentives” include items such as telecommuting, part-time hours, working during off hours, etc. Finally, there’s often a perception by workers that if they don’t play ball they will be “encouraged” to move on and find a different position.
- Job And Career Uncertainty And Insecurity
It’s a fact: Most people in the workplace will have five to seven career changes over the course of their work lives. Some of these changes will be by choice, while others will be due to economic, business-related decisions, and other non-controllable factors. The fact remains, these changes are going to occur whether workers believe it or not, want them or not, or are ready for them or not.
Why so many career changes? It used to be that a person could go to work for a company and stay with the company for 30 or 40 years. If he or she was loyal to the company and did certain things in a certain way the company would take care of him or her. After a lifetime of employment the person would retire with a nice pension and a gold watch.
This type of informal employer-employee contract began to disappear in the 1980’s. From the early 1980’s through the mid-1990’s massive and unprecedented layoffs occurred (often in the name of the “bottom line”). Job security as we once knew it became a relic of the past. Today it’s all about becoming career self-reliant. The informal contract has changed to
“…we (the company) will give you the necessary resources (such as training and job aids) to do your job, but it is up to you (the employee) to determine where you want to go and what you want to do within this framework. Furthermore, there is no obligation on our part to ensure your job security – it’s up to you, the employee, to keep your skills sharp, your knowledge keen, and your career goals updated. Oh, but by the way, we expect you to work 45-60 hours per week, not say bad things about the company, and thank your lucky stars that you even have a job.”
This change in the informal employer-employee contract has snuck up on most workers and many still don’t realize this transition is occurring. In fact, the current workforce, those people aged 22 to 65 years, is the transitional generation of workers. What this means in terms of stress is that when many people (especially those between 30 and 65 years old) entered the workforce, they had an expectation of the way it used to work: That if one entered the workforce and was loyal to the company that the company would take care of her or him. After all, that’s what they heard from their parents and grandparents: “Get a good secure job, preferably with benefits, and things will be OK.” However, the reality has changed and people become confused and often fall into a survival mode of operation. They become afraid to challenge the status quo and question decisions made by the company decision makers (such as cutting vacation and other benefits, having more and more work piled on them, and being delegated more responsibility without the adequate level of authority to carry out the necessary tasks.)
- The Accelerating Pace Of Change
Business decisions, technology, markets, and the economy – all seem to be changing at the speed of light. One day the company decides it is going to ramp up to provide product or service “A” and the next day switches to product or service “Z”. Workers invest time and energy to learn a new email program and 2 months later are asked to drop that one and learn a different one. Markets and the economy ebb and flow and the company reacts or even overreacts, setting off huge ripples of chaos and uncertainty within the organization.
These are things that managers and employees deal with on a daily basis. Over time, if a person does not learn to go with the flow of change, she or he will become overwhelmed when even the slightest change occurs. When someone reaches this point, something as simple as the company letterhead changing can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
- Balancing Family And Work Obligations
There are two key family issues facing many in today’s workplace, 1) child care, and/or 2) elder care. This at a time when society, in the form of peer pressure and media advertising, continues to set the expectation that today’s worker should be able to do it all: Look great, be full of enthusiasm, have a great career, keep the home fires burning by taking care of children and/or parents, handle the pets, make over the spare bedroom, plan a fabulous vacation, the list goes on. It is worth mentioning that this sample list of perceived expectations was taken directly from just one evening of watching TV and noting commercials, sitcoms, and reality shows occurring during primetime. All these expectations foisted upon working folks in just a couple of hours. The question is, what message is this sending to workers and how are they dealing with it?
This constant effort of trying to be the perfect mom or dad, the perfect partner, the perfect worker, have the perfect body, drive the perfect vehicle and so on, is really taking a toll on workers and adding to the pile up of stress.
Summary Of Workplace Stressors
As you can see, the seven stressors mentioned overlap and integrate in such a way that it is no wonder that today’s workforce is becoming more and more stressed, apathetic, tired, and burned out. Being expected to do more with less, not having opportunities to recognize and apply their career values and motivated skills, having more responsibility heaped upon them without the necessary levels of authority to carry out the responsibility, and the constant nagging worry of keeping their jobs is a huge challenge for today’s workers.
Here’s The Good News: Fifteen Ways To Get Rid Of Workplace Stress
Although the stressors outlined above are real, it is always a good idea for people to assess how much reality versus perception we have in their individual situations. As such, take a few minutes to ask yourself the following questions and to really think hard about if you have more power than you may think to change at least some of your situations for the better:
- Am I bringing any of this on myself?
Are there things I can be doing to improve the situation?
Am I blaming someone or something else (my partner, my company, my children, traffic, etc.) for the degree of happiness I am attaining or not attaining in my life?
Am I actually taking control of what I can control and accepting what I cannot control?
Have I lulled myself into a false sense that my work and my non-work lives are beyond my capabilities to handle – am I copping out?
Do I know what my career values and motivated skills are? If not, how can I find out?
If I am unhappy with my work situation, what is my short-term action plan to transition to something better? Who controls this decision?
What are my long-term career action plans?
Am I being as time efficient as I can? Am I looking for ways to integrate tasks and projects?
Am I focusing on what needs to get done so that I don’t have to take work home?
Can I form a support group (possibly made up of trusted coworkers, friends, clergy, etc.) where I can safely share my concerns, vent my anger, and deal with non-productive emotions?
Am I a Type-A workaholic? If so, can I admit it and ask for help?
Do I use work as a convenient excuse to not deal with other facets of my life? (Primary relationship, self image, weight challenges, etc.)
What would it take for me to turn off the TV two nights per week and do something more energetic or socially responsible?
15. Are my tears and frustration at work really a symptom of something else going on in my life?
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