Debunking Common Myths about Stress

Pressure, technology, bosses and other stress-related factors are not always the enemy. In fact, a recent survey finds a direct relationship between good stress on the job and overall employee engagement among U.S. workers.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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Think that a majority of your employees resent the level of stress on their job and that those negative feelings are damaging their productivity?

Or that employees view the increased availability and sophistication of today's workplace technology not as a plus but as destroying the sacred balance between work and personal life -- and in the process, making them "virtual prisoners" of the company?

Maybe you're convinced that it's the first-line manager who is the single most important influence on an employee's engagement and performance?

Well, think again. The reality may be quite a bit different -- and better -- than your perception.

These and other long-held beliefs about the workforce -- all of which bear heavily on employee stress and engagement levels -- are being challenged by findings from Towers Perrin's 2007-2008 Global Workforce Study.

To understand what drives employees to perform and succeed, Towers Perrin recently surveyed nearly 90,000 employees in 18 countries. The study, which explored the key drivers of workforce engagement -- employees' willingness to go the extra mile to help their companies succeed -- exploded many of the common myths that surround today's workforce. Following are several of the biggest surprises we found.

"Good Stress" Energizes Employees

We asked employees to indicate their feelings about on-the-job stress -- specifically, whether they felt frustrated and demotivated by the amount of stress on their job or whether stress was actually an energizing force for them.

Contrary to our expectation that stress would be a negative factor, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of those surveyed reported being neutral or actually energized by on-the-job stress.

By contrast, just under one-third (32 percent) of respondents felt adversely affected by stress in the workplace. Results among 44,000 U.S. employees were comparable to the global numbers (Exhibit 1).

Clearly, a little bit of stress on the job can be a positive for individuals and for the organization. The relatively high number of employees who indicated a measure of comfort and positive energy in response to work-related stress confirms that challenging work, even when stressful, can actually help employees remain focused and interested throughout their daily routines, and make them more eager to contribute.

At the same time, respondents do want more work/life balance and are looking to their employers, and especially their managers, to help them achieve that balance in ways that support both their career aspirations and the company's needs.

Technology as Friend, not Foe

The increasingly common images of workers sitting in airports, on trains and even at the beach with laptops open and cell phones at the ready conjure up thoughts of highly stressed workers bound 24/7 to their work. And in fact, that may be the case.

What is not clear on the surface, however, is the extent to which employees see this technology as enabling or as suffocating.

We asked employees how they felt about current technology, particularly as relates to stress levels and maintaining a satisfactory balance between their personal life and their work.

Far from being a problem, the vast majority of survey respondents (86 percent) believe that technology is actually helping them achieve balance between personal and work life. And by a 4-to-1 margin, employees credit their employers with providing the technology they and their colleagues need to get their work done.

This positive response not only contradicts the common belief that technology keeps employees chained to their jobs and dominates their time away from the office, it also signals that employees are realistic about the demands of today's global business environment and welcome the ability to use technology to achieve work/life balance in a world that operates literally around the clock. 

Importance of Work

Despite the common perception that "workaholism" has its roots in the United States and has spread outward to other geographies with the increasingly global and "boundaryless" economy, we found that not to be the case.

Workers globally were twice as likely as U.S. workers to say that work was the most important part of their lives. Few employees are actually "living to work," especially in the United States, where the reputation for "workaholism" may be more hype than real (Exhibit 2).

Work is far from the most important thing in the lives of a majority of workers. More than half of respondents (59 percent) reported that they work to support their lives and the needs of their families, versus just 18 percent who agreed that work is the most important aspect of their lives. American respondents were eight times as likely to say that they work to support life/needs as indicate work is most important.

Globally, the ability to balance personal and professional life is one of the most important factors in employee retention.

On the positive side, almost half of respondents feel their company's "policies and programs help employees balance work and personal life responsibilities."

Nevertheless, more than one in every five respondents admit to being frequently or always "frustrated in my efforts to balance my work and personal life."

With work/life balance playing such a major role in organizations' ability to retain employees, it makes sense for employers to take an active role in helping the workforce achieve the right combination of personal and professional satisfaction. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

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Driving Employee Engagement

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the data was the influence that senior leadership decisions and visibility have as drivers of employee engagement. Until now, it was believed that the first-line manager was the single most important factor in employee performance.

Our survey results show that, while a good relationship with one's direct manager remains very important and reduces stress, the actions of senior leadership combined with overall workplace programs and policies -- such as learning and advancement opportunities, worker empowerment and corporate social responsibility -- hold even greater weight.

When these factors combine with positive direct-manager relationships, organizations can cultivate more positive environments for their workforce -- leading to greater productivity, engagement and success.

"Good Stress" = Employee Engagement = Performance

Towers Perrin research shows that organizations with highly engaged employees are far more likely to achieve stronger revenue growth, lower costs and higher income relative to companies with less engaged employees.

And a highly engaged workforce is also more stable -- more likely to want to stay with their employer and invest discretionary effort on the job.

Exhibit 3 demonstrates the direct relationship between good stress on the job and overall employee engagement among U.S. workers. Just slightly more than 40 percent of employees who registered high levels of frustration and demotivation caused by stress on the job were engaged in their work.

By contrast, 87 percent of employees who considered themselves highly energized by stress were highly engaged in their work. Clearly, as employees become less frustrated and more energized by stress, their engagement levels increase dramatically -- and with that, higher levels of individual and organizational performance.

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Survey results may differ depending on country, industry and company specifics. But the challenges -- and ultimately, the rewards -- for employers are clear. For best results, you'll want to start by comparing your own workforce to industry/geographic averages to see where your greatest opportunities lie.

About the study:

The 2007-2008 Global Workforce Study, the largest of its kind, identifies the drivers of attraction, retention and engagement through the eyes of close to 90,000 employees at mid-sized and large organizations worldwide. It is designed to provide a road map for organizations and their leaders in shaping the work environment, practices and programs that will bring in the right talent, retain that talent and, most critically, drive higher levels of engagement across all segments of the population.

About the authors:

Julie Gebauer oversees Towers Perrin's Workforce Effectiveness business and is managing director of Towers Perrin-ISR, the firm's employee research arm. Max Caldwell is managing principal of Towers Perrin's Global Workforce Effectiveness practice.


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