Job Stress Comes In Many Guises

Workplace stress is common, yet is not always easy to see or remedy.
Poor planning, difficulties with assessing priorities, organizational policy gaps, supervisory issues and immature interpersonal relations among co-workers can create stress. In our last column, we discussed five stressors that hurt staff morale and productivity, and reduce organizational effectiveness. There are five more stressors that, if left unchecked, harm staff and businesses:

Accountability Stress

Generally, accountability is something positive. People like a sense of accomplishment and recognition when they reach milestones and deliver on promises. However, stress results when individuals have an enormous amount of responsibility but no authority. In these situations, staff are to deliver on a project and may even be assigned as the lead person but they have no power to deal with issues as they arise. For example, if someone on the project is not carrying his weight, the accountable staff person cannot wield enough authority to get the job done. So they are rendered ineffectual because they have no powers of discipline, performance review authority, hiring or firing capacity or ability to influence another’s career. Yet, at the same time, this staff person must delivering in a timely fashion. The resulting stress is difficult to deal with especially when it looks like the project might fail without intervention.

Fixing this situation is difficult without the help of the superior who assigned the project. If that supervisor waves the staff person away, the project will probably fail. This occurs when the employee in charge is unable to effect change in the composition of the team or offer incentives such as favourable evaluations to work diligently and cooperatively. Instead, staff find themselves up against people who don’t have to perform at the standard required or even cooperate fully.
The staff person in charge should either have the authority to lead or the supervisor must partner with him to ensure the job is taken seriously. Many supervisors in this situation abdicate their responsibility for the project by handing it off to a relatively powerless subordinate.

Staff must have a frank discussion with the supervisor when this happens and if there is no change they may want to ask to be removed from the project or to take a different role.

Work-Life Balance Stress
Juggling work and home life responsibilities can take a toll on those with family and career obligations. When one’s standards in both arenas do not match what is humanly possible to achieve, stress results.
Often people are inclined to believe that they must perform at Olympic levels both professionally and personally. Being able to stand back and critically examine what is most important and how to achieve these priorities is key. If for example, a time crunch is occurring at work, it may be time to talk to family members about helping out to make the job at work go smoothly. If responsibilities are mounting at home, a discussion with a supervisor may be in order to offer some respite from scheduling difficulties at work. Those who believe they must grin and bear it or make every priority a key “must do” are at the greatest risk for this kind of workplace stress. Evaluate what must be done, in what order and in what time frame and ask for help to combat this stressor.

Enduring discrimination at work on the basis of one’s race, gender, sexual orientation or physical disability can be extremely stressful.
When this occurs it is important to know your company’s policy regarding treatment of minorities. Sometimes you may notice a particular ethnic or racial group is getting the interesting assignments or there are racial or sexual slurs made at your expense. Many companies have policies that provide recourse in these instances. However, if this is not the case and one can only appeal to superiors, it is important to document the issues about which you want action and your efforts to obtain better treatment. Letting supervisors know that you want
discriminatory activities to stop and that you are expecting action in this area is important. If you are not satisfied, consider moving up the chain of command or to a better company.

Unfair work practices that don’t constitute discrimination are no less stressful. Many employees have found themselves disengaged, thinking of quitting or apathetic at work when treated unfairly. This can include being implicitly or explicitly promised a promotion after completing required tasks to a high standard only to find that the promotion is not forthcoming. Other instances include being given work beneath your abilities consistently, being appraised critically when circumstances prevented your optimal performance (the project was held up by another department and the responsibility lands on you) or when you weren’t provided with the proper resources to do the job effectively. These kinds of situations breed burn-out. It is important to bring unfair circumstances and broken promises to the attention of the organization. Leaving resentment to fester will take its toll on your health in the long run.

Office-Clique Stress
Social isolation in any situation can be devastating. Office cliques are particularly damaging to morale, given the amount of time spent there. It is normal for workers to be friends with some, but not all staff. But this does not mean the need for excluding others.

Supervisors often tolerate this dynamic at their peril. The difference between normal office friendships and the exclusion of individuals must be made explicit when office cliques are ruining a collegial atmosphere at work. Pointing out to the supervisor that this is occurring is important, but oftentimes the clique is subtly sanctioned by the boss who may even belong to the clique. Blinded to the problem, the supervisor unknowingly undermines the performance of the team.
Appealing to the supervisor’s desire to get things done and pointing out how the office clique prevents real collaboration may help heighten the supervisor’s awareness. If that doesn’t work, it may be time to transfer to another less “sophomoric” department.

While stress may be common at work, there are ways individual employees, supervisors and the organization can help reduce difficult encounters, harmful dynamics and poorly planned endeavors to generate increased efficiency, productivity and enjoyment.
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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