Stressful Workplaces

Managerial disorganization, interpersonal conflict and a lack of training frequently contribute to workers’ stress levels. Throw in the recession and the massive specter of job losses these days, and stress levels have the potential to be sky high.

For employees, this can mean increased physical symptoms like headaches, stomach problems, sleeplessness, over or under eating or excessive drinking.

Organizations feel the pressure too. Staff underperforms, productivity dips and morale and revenue drops. Both employees and the organization must work together to mitigate stress.

There are ten main areas of workplace stress that require immediate attention to prevent risks to employee health and productivity:

1. Performance Stress
This is a difficult one since many workers would rather not discuss concerns about their performance for fear of appearing incompetent. However, many employees find work stressful because of lack of knowledge, training or adequate instruction. These issues can be alleviated by providing staff with training and guidance to do an effective job. In some cases, unnecessary stress happens because the person isn’t the right fit for the job and might be better suited in another role. If you feel stressed because you have doubts about how to do certain aspects of the job, think about what you need to fill the gap and approach your supervisor. If it feels like you are admitting a major training gap, think about obtaining the skill on your own time – at night school for example. Actively seek a way to feel good about yourself in the role by learning as much as you can and admitting when you don’t know what to do. There is no harm in not knowing. The harm comes when we don’t try to find the answers we need.

2. People Stress
Trouble with colleagues or co-workers makes stress levels rise. This is especially true if our difficulty is with a superior. If you find yourself stressed by relations between you and others, first reflect on your own behavior. How can you make conditions better for yourself and others. If you search and find that the problem is your co-worker, think about how to address him or her. Most workplace stress is caused when people are afraid to try to work the problem out with each other. Talking about the issue with the individual involved is key. Many times we talk about our issue with anyone other than the person who is troubling us including colleagues, the boss or HR. However, if it is truly impossible, as in the case of harassment for example, obtaining help from a supervisor or HR is important.

3. Priority Stress
Sometimes you have too much to do in too little time. Stress is generated by giving equal weight to all tasks. Do what is most important first. If you can’t figure out the priority, this usually signals a lack of clarity about what’s important in your organization. In that case a conversation with your boss is in order. Frustratingly, you may find that the discussion doesn’t make things clearer because the manager herself doesn’t know what’s most important. At this point, recognize this is not your fault. Ask the manager to think about what would be the most important projects and where you should spend most of your time. Give the manager some time to sort this out and ensure that you book time to discuss these priorities. Be willing to go back as many times as it takes to get clarity. You’ll find your stress decreasing when you can state clearly to yourself what is most important for the department.

4. Job-Loss Stress
Layoffs are common these days and rank in the top tier of life’s stressors. Equally stressful is wondering whether you’re next on the chopping block. Actively looking for alternate employment in case the worst happens is important. Also, find out what your benefits will be in case of layoff or consider going to school should your job end. It may be difficult to find work in the field you’ve been previously employed. So look at other occupations that might suit you. These may not be your first choice, but think of it as a temporary situation until work in your chosen field becomes available again. Much of the stress in a layoff comes with feeling like a failure or that things are hopeless. Once again, remember it’s not your fault, think about how to weather a temporary economic storm and discuss the issue with others. But don’t isolate yourself. If ever there was a time for support, this is it.

5. Favoritism
If your boss plays favorites you are likely to suffer from stress at work. To work in organization that favors some employees over others increases competition, creates resentment and encourages conformity. To be one of the chosen employees, workers will follow along with the majority opinion at the cost of creativity and divergent opinion. If you see favoritism at work, ensure that you let people know how you are contributing to the effort. Stealing credit can occur in these environments and it is made harder if you let people know what you are doing and accomplishing. You may not be able to change this toxic behavior but you can mitigate any ill effects. Feeling left out is a common experience when favorites are played. Guard against this by developing activities and relationships with others who you find interesting. Get involved in other areas of the organization so that you have a broader perspective than just your department.

In our next column, we will review five more stressors and what to do about them.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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