Taming Stress

The topic of job stress is a growing area of study and one that managers in Northwest Florida and across the country are working to understand. By Triston V. Sanders The ROI of Stress ReductionThink productivity and profitability returns when you consider the cost-benefit of investing in corporate wellness initiativesBy Triston V. Sanders

You’ve got budget cuts in an economy in turmoil, you have personnel issues, you’re drowning in paperwork, your BlackBerry is buzzing at you, your work phone is ringing off the hook, you have a stack of messages to return, and let’s not even mention your e-mail inbox that’s overflowing. You need a vacation but don’t have TIME to take one. You’re stressed out.

You are officially part of an epidemic. That’s right. In 1996, the World Health Organization labeled stress a “worldwide epidemic.” Today, workplace stress is estimated to cost American companies more than $300 billion a year in poor performance, absenteeism and health costs.

“Stress” has now become synonymous with “work.” Pamela Perrewé is the Haywood and Betty Taylor Eminent Scholar and Distinguished Research Professor in the College of Business at Florida State University. She’s studied the psychological, behavioral, and physiological responses to job stress for over 20 years. “I think that people now believe that having a stressful job is a ‘badge of honor’ and if you are not experiencing strain from work you do not have a challenging job,” says Perrewé. “This is, of course, ridiculous, but many believe that job stress means they are somehow important.”

A Business Issue: Stress Leads to Poor Productivity

Many employees report headaches, back pain, and other physical symptoms that stem from their stress while ultimately leading to sick days and lack of productivity. “Even if companies do not care about the well-being of their employees, they care about the bottom line costs. It’s expensive and if employees leave due to stressors in the workplace, turnover is going to be high,” explains Perrewé.

The topic of job stress is a growing area of study and one that managers across the country are working to understand. Benae Smart, the Director of Employee Relations at the Florida State University Foundation Inc. recruits, screens, interviews and hires new employees. Prior to that she coordinated national staffing programs and recruiting plans for Kelly Services Inc. Smart is in the initial stages of creating a more holistic approach to employee relations. “I think the issue of job stress is extremely complex and is impacted by many variables,” says Smart. “Where you are in your career – early stage, peak of your earning potential or nearing retirement – plays a role; the satisfaction you may or may not have with your career choice or choice of employer; your salary; the environmental conditions at work; your personal responsibilities and lifestyle habits outside of the office; and even the economy plays a role in the amount of stress we feel at work. One of the reasons stress and work are so often associated is that we spend more of our waking hours at work than we do anywhere else, so it is only natural to experience the combined stress of our personal and professional challenges in the workplace.”

Stress is Highly Individualized

The American Institute of Stress is a non-profit organization established in 1978 to serve as a clearinghouse for information on all stress related subjects, including job stress. It says that stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons. One survey it points to showed that having to complete paperwork was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals. The severity of job stress depends on the magnitude of the demands that are being made and the person’s sense of control or decision-making latitude he or she has in dealing with them.

Perrewé says that’s where managers come in. She has this advice for them: “Give employees decision latitude (i.e., control) over their work. Having a sense of control over your work is a great coping mechanism. Even jobs that require a high workload are not seen as stressful if employees are able to schedule their work and feel they are able to control and predict their work demands. Also, make sure employees receive the training they need to do their job well (this is another form of feeling in control of your work). Finally, encourage social support among employees.”

The FSU Foundation has taken steps to address workplace stress by offering a Wellness Program to all employees. The program rewards any staff member with reimbursement for participation in activities that improve the overall physical or mental health of the employee – weight reduction programs, gym memberships, relaxation initiatives – any number of proactive steps an employee may choose to try to improve and control the stresses of everyday life.

Tallahassee Memorial Hospital is launching a formal wellness program, as well. But aside from health initiatives, the company wants to put a smile on the faces of its workers. Over the summer, TMH held “Summer of Fun” offering contests, carnivals and other creative approaches to boosting morale. Capital City Bank gives away football tickets to its associates and holds contests and parties that allow co-workers to interact and socialize. At an annual carnival, there is even a dunking booth that allows them to dunk their CEO. Datamaxx Group in Tallahassee provides communication systems, support and consulting to law enforcement, criminal justice and government organizations. The company’s headquarters includes a fully-equipped fitness facility. These are just a few examples of how local companies are helping their employees tackle stress.

Approaches to Stress Management

Smart says she’s seen other companies take creative approaches. “I have witnessed several other initiatives at other organizations which are increasing in popularity. Bringing your dog to work is gaining much broader acceptance with research indicating that stress levels are significantly reduced. Working from home, telecommuting or compressed work weeks are also popular now in an effort to reduce some of the financial stress in our current economy. One other memorable program I saw was the addition of ‘quiet rooms’ where several cots were set up in a room with low lighting and very soft music. Employees were encouraged to take an afternoon nap or lie down and reenergize themselves and by all accounts this has a positive impact.”

Managers, of course, are often under a great deal of stress, too. Britt Landrum Jr., CEO of Landrum Companies in Pensacola, oversees one of the largest companies in Northwest Florida. He says after 38 years of ups and downs he tries to keep a handle on stress. “I have learned to take a longer term view of things, and I have always been an optimist,” says Landrum. “Things eventually get better. ‘Attitude’ is important in keeping stress levels low. I also deal with stress by exercising regularly. I love to walk, jog, ride my bike and paddle my kayak. When the water is calm and the sun is rising, there’s nothing more relaxing to me than kayaking on Santa Rosa Sound behind my home. Also, I love golf. Spending a day working on my game and playing a round of golf with my friends is a great way for me to relax and relieve stress.”

The CEO of Florida, Governor Charlie Crist says stress is not a word in his vocabulary, thanks to his daily dose of swimming. “I don’t have stress,” says Crist. “I love what I’m doing. There’s a lot of pressure to it but I exercise every morning. That’s a great way to maintain balance and relieve stress, if any exists. My faith helps a lot, along with my family and my friends. And I’m governor of Florida. It’s pretty joyous to be governor of Florida.”

Employees themselves can play a critical role in combating stress. “Try to gain some control over your work – this might be gaining control over workload, asking for training so that you understand the job better and are able to perform your work at a high level,” says Perrewé. “Seek social support from trusted colleagues or friends outside the workplace. And, live a healthy lifestyle. Exercise and good nutrition are important for individual coping. The mind-body connection is well documented. Another form of control (for coping with job stress) is interpersonal control. This means that an individual feels he/she has the social skills to do well with people. Having social skill at work (or what we have formally termed “political skill”) has been shown to lower experienced stress not only psychologically, but physiologically. Basically, given a stressful situation, individuals who have political skill experience less strain because they believe they have the skills to successfully navigate their environment.”

Stress is an unavoidable consequence of life. But remember, stress isn’t always bad. Some of the best moments in life are stressful… riding a roller coaster, getting married, having a baby, getting a promotion. Happiness is the payoff.

For more information: “Political Skill at Work,” by Gerald R. Ferris, Sherry Davidson and Pam Perrewé . Published by Davies – Black  • The American Institute of Stress: stress.org