Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Employee Morale and Stress

A lot has been written about the connection between low employee morale and stress. In fact, Melissa Bushman even claims it to be “The most common cause of low employee morale.”
On the face of it, this sounds reasonable. If I’m stressed at work, I’m probably not happy at work. Take a deeper dive on this statement, however, and different conclusions will be realized. We must start by defining stress. I believe stress to be the internal response to external stimuli. Because we are all different, individuals exposed to the same external stimuli will react differently. I’m sure everyone reading can think of someone in the office who seems to be constantly stressed while others always appear calm and at peace. So stress is a very individualized phenomenon. If this is true, then stress is a symptom, not a root cause of low employee morale.

What might stress be symptomatic of? This website gives a good overview of the events that cause stress in people’s lives. What becomes striking, is that most stress that people experience in their lives has little or nothing to do with what takes place in the workplace. Perhaps we need a list of workplace stressors. We could list items such as having a bad boss, a bully for a co-worker, bad air conditioning, lousy chairs or other elements of a bad working environment. All of these elements are very subjective. The fact remains that while brain surgeons hold someone’s life in their hands and it would seem to be one of the most stressful jobs there is; the surgeon’s hand is steady and seemingly stress free. Meanwhile, no one ever died from bad plumbing (presumably), yet there are stressed plumbers in our world.

So, are companies wasting time and money when they offer stress reduction programs? Does treating the symptom (stress) that is more than likely caused by either non-work related events or a worker’s individual propensity to experience stress from seemingly minor events actually have the ability to improve employee morale? Certainly, workplace stress reduction programs show the company cares about its employees. The programs may make the workplace more tolerable. And for an individual, some of the stress reduction programs could lower absenteeism. Just look at some of these ideas:

On-site Massage Therapy
Allowing dogs in the workplace
Weight reduction programs
Promote telecommuting
And don’t forget this life-affirming course in conscious living

The fact is, these approaches and more will make it more likely that your employees will want to come to work. They will feel appreciated and valued. But recognize it for what it is: the treatment of a symptom. Stress reduction programs will not help supervisors learn more effective management techniques; it won’t make them better bosses! These programs won’t solve the problem of the office bully, harassment that might be taking place or underlying racial or cultural tensions that may exist. They won’t improve the heating and air conditioning, provide better chairs, or reduce the amount of mold in your bldg.

Bottom line for me is that to effectively address low employee morale, you must absolutely understand the causes. Treating the symptoms might seem effective at first, but sooner or later you’ll be asking why aren’t those massage chairs working any more and why isn’t Fido wagging his tail?

About the authorDonald Glade is President and Founder of Sourcing Analytics, Inc., an independent consulting firm specializing in helping companies optimize their HR / benefits / payroll service partnerships through relationship management, financial analysis, and process improvement.

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