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Stress and the Leadership Factor

The connection between health and workplace stress is well established. But in order to limit the damaging effects of such stress, leaders may have to take a good look in the mirror first.

Monday, December 9, 2013
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Could leaders who neglect their own emotional health be partly responsible for increasing stress in the workplace?

Bob Rosen thinks so. Rosen, author of a new book on the New York Times best-sellers list, Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in an Uncertain World, says the nature of work today continues to ratchet up stress levels in today's organizations.

"It's much harder to live a balanced life now because of business uncertainty, the speed of everything, there's more scrutiny and distrust in the workplace, competition is greater and the world is interconnected," says Rosen, an organizational psychologist and the founder of Arlington, Va.-based Healthy Companies International. 

"All these winds of change are affecting the stress of employees and their leaders, and if employees are stressed, it's going to influence their opinions and perceptions of their workplace, their bosses and colleagues, and the amount of work they have to do and how they're balancing work and family," he says.

The obsessive focus on short-term results has led to unhealthy workplaces led by emotionally unhealthy people, he says. In such an environment, even the best-designed health-and-wellness programs won't be effective, says Rosen. "If leaders are really stressed out and not taking responsibility for their own health, then how do you expect them to have the energy to help their employees do the same?"

Stress is the No. 1 workforce risk issue, according to New York-based Towers Watson, ranking above obesity and physical inactivity. Yet only 15 percent of employers identify improving the emotional and mental health of employees as a top priority, according to TW's Staying@Work survey, which queried 892 global employers and was conducted in partnership with the National Business Group on Health.

As for what's causing workplace stress, there's a big gap between employees and HR on this issue. Most of the survey participants on the employer side were part of companies' HR departments, says Shelly Wolff, senior healthcare consultant at Towers Watson.

The HR respondents ranked the top three causes of workplace stress as a lack of work/life balance, inadequate staffing and technologies (such as smartphones) that expand employee availability during non-work hours. However, according to Towers Watson's Global Benefits Attitude Survey, which queried 5,070 U.S. workers, inadequate staffing is the No. 1 cause of workplace stress, followed by low pay or no pay increases, and unclear or conflicting job expectations.

"The difference concerning pay was pretty interesting," says Wolff. "It's symptomatic of an economy that continues to struggle and the suppression of salaries, and that's starting to show up in terms of people having a hard time managing their budgets."

While pay was an important factor, so too was inadequate staffing, she says.

"It's 'I have more work to do, I need to know what is important, so there's this lack of clarity around what you need from me,' " says Wolff. " 'I've got more to do, so tell me what's important so I can be more successful.' "

As for HR's perceptions of the chief causes of workplace stress, she says it may have something to do with what HR has control over.

"HR can only go so far in terms of pay raises and staffing levels -- that's dictated by the organization, not HR," says Wolff. "They tend to have more influence over things like work/life balance, expectations for employees and technology availability during work hours."

Rosen says he wasn't surprised that employees cited inadequate pay as one of their top stressors.

"There is a problem between the disproportionality between top-executive pay and employee pay and that's been a long-time problem," he says. "Having said that, a lot of employee complaints are related to their boss."

Leaders at every level of the company create the organizational culture, says Rosen, and these leaders are either healthy or unhealthy in their approach.

Technology was another area of disconnect in the Towers Watson survey results: Employers cited technology such as smartphones that potentially blur the lines between work and home life, but employees ranked that concern as No. 10 on the biggest causes of workplace stress.

"Over the years, many of us have learned to set parameters around the use of technology," says Wolff. "Four years ago, employees ranked it as one of the top three; this is the first time it fell to No. 10. It may be the case that senior leaders are not as effective in limiting their own use of technology for work as employees are."

Maintaining a balance between family life and work can be especially difficult for leaders these days, given technology's reach, says Rebecca Wagner, program manager for the "Professionals in Crisis" program at the Menninger Clinic's Houston facility. This is often the case even when they know that their lives are out of whack, she adds. 

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"For these folks, putting a plan into action can be the hardest thing -- we all tend to spout off about the things we should be doing for ourselves, but actually following through is very difficult for professionals -- for anyone, in fact," says Wagner.

Leaders are often better able to handle high amounts of stress than others simply because they've had to learn to cope with it in order to attain their positions in the first place, she says. However, stress coupled with a precipitating event -- divorce, death in the family, etc. -- can render them incapacitated, says Wagner.

When treating her high-level clientele, Wagner says, she tries to help them rediscover what's important to them and regain some perspective on their lives.

"It's getting them to take a step back and think about how they feel about what's going on in their lives, what's it like for their family members and colleagues to be around them?" she says. "We spend so much time at work that our colleagues are almost like our secondary families, and if we're always stressed out, then how can we connect with these people?"

Louisville, Ky.-based Humana conducts daylong, on-site "stress hardiness" workshops for its own and clients' managers so they can learn not only how to better manage stress for themselves but also teach their employees to do so, says Humana Wellness Vice President and COO Chris Nicholson.

"It's techniques for teaching their people about leveraging social networks, paying attention to stress triggers and managing their sleeping, eating and exercise routines," he says.

Managers can alter their own practices to lessen stress on their direct reports, such as changing the way they conduct one-on-one meetings.

"One-on-ones with leaders tend to be the most stressful parts of the week for employees," he says. "At Humana, we've shifted those to walking meetings, so it takes you out of that stressful 'across the desk' environment and gets you outside, moving, gets the blood flowing -- the change of scenery really helps."

Getting leaders to face their problems requires courage on the part of HR, says Rosen.

"HR can bolster their argument by citing the demonstrated links between healthy corporate cultures and the bottom line," he says. "They can also be the models and champions of physical and emotional health themselves. They can build healthy organizations within HR."

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