Manage Workplace Stress in a Downturn

September 1, 2009

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Work-related stress is a perpetual problem, but the added pressures of a recession can make it a serious obstacle to productivity, health and an overall sense of work-life balance.

The economic downturn has decreased the sense of job security across a wide range of professions, and a reduced workforce due to layoffs has meant that many employees have had to take on added responsibilities and a larger share of the workload. These factors all contribute to workplace stress, which has become a major source of concern due to its effects on productivity, work quality and long-term employee retention.

According to a recent survey of working-age adults from the American Psychological Association (APA), 81 percent of men and 68 percent of women between the ages of 45 and 54 report that work is a significant source of stress in their lives. The number of men in this age group who suffer stress due to financial concerns has risen from 78 percent to 86 percent since September 2008.

Among 35- to 44-year-old men and women, 88 percent of men and 77 percent of women report experiencing considerable stress about earning money, while the number of men stressed over job stability has leaped from 57 percent in September 2008 to the present level of 71 percent. The study claims that since September of last year, middle-aged men have undergone the largest stress increases.

Almost seven out of 10 American workers have faced wage freezes, reduced pay and benefits, layoffs or increased work hours due to the weakened economy. As a result, employees who have experienced multiple cost-cutting measures in their workplace are much likelier to report economic-related stress.

"For many people their job is closely tied with their sense of purpose and self-identity. When they perceive that their work is under threat or fear being unable to meet the basic needs of their family, stress can intensify," Katherine Nordal, executive director for professional practice at the APA, said in an announcement of the survey results.

According to Helpguide.org, a mental health and wellness site, increased stress levels can cause apathy and a lack of interest in work, make concentration difficult and cause employees to behave in anxious, irritable or depressive ways.

Naturally, these conditions can seriously hinder workplace performance and lead to noticeable declines in productivity. A study conducted by Workplace Options, a work-life services firm, found that roughly half of employees suffer problems in performing their duties due to stress and that "anxiety over finances and the troubled economic climate...is taking a toll in workplace productivity."

The impact of employee stress extends to employers as well. In addition to stress-induced productivity loss, stressful workplace conditions can also make it harder to retain employees. A separate study from Workplace Options showed that 49 percent of stressed workers would consider leaving their company for one that offered a less anxious environment.

Furthermore, employees who are less stressed and feel they have a positive work-life balance work 21 percent harder than those who don't, the study found.

While there are numerous ways for an employee to reduce on-the-job stress, it's up to the individual worker to determine what works best. Forbes offers the following suggestions for making workplace stress more manageable:

  • Develop a ritual. Practicing a quick, relaxing ritual, such as listening to a favorite song or going for a walk, can help overcome some day-to-day irritations.
  • Plan for the unexpected. Be prepared for unexpected changes, such as having a delay in a business trip, by having something to occupy yourself with when you hit an interruption.
  • Gain perspective. Try to put some distance between yourself and a problem by imagining what it will look like a year from now. It might seem minor in the long run.
  • Stretch out. Sitting hunched over can cause tension to develop in the muscles and adds to stress. Try helping your posture and your health by standing up and stretching a few times a day.
  • Tell a joke. Humor is a well-known curative for stress. Making a joke or taking a lighthearted approach to a work dilemma can be an excellent way to relieve anxiety.
  • Get physical. Exercise has been proven to reduce stress to manageable levels. Engaging in just ten minutes of physical activity outside the office each day can make a noticeable difference in your outlook.

But the burden of stress doesn't need to be shouldered by employees alone. Management can also implement certain measures to cultivate a less stressful work setting.

"Responsible CEOs and business owners need to accept that these pressures are going to affect their bottom line. They've got to be aware of how their staff is coping and what they can do to help," Kathleen Hall, the founder of the Stress Institute, told Inc.com.

Some steps management can take to help alleviate employee stress include: understanding when workers are under pressure by paying attention to the signs; trying to balance workloads to prevent people from being overwhelmed; setting reasonable deadlines and work schedules; or providing workplace health and wellness programs.

Work stress will never be eliminated entirely, but it can be kept at manageable levels as long the problem is identified before growing too severe. By making a concerted effort to reduce anxiety, employees and managers can help improve happiness both at work and at home.

Earlier

How to Cope with Stress

On-the-Job Stress Tips

Resources

APA Poll Finds Economic Stress Taking a Toll American Psychological Association, May 7, 2009

Stress at Work by Jeanne Segal, Laura Horwitz, Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Melinda Smith and Robert Segal Helpguide.org, November 2008

Job Satisfaction Survey September Workplace Options, September 2008

Job Satisfaction Survey April 2009 Workplace Options, April 2009

Best Workplace Stress Relievers by Allison Van Dusen Forbes, May 2, 2007

Is the Economy Stressing You Out? by Angus Loten Inc.com, Nov. 10, 2008

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