Thinking Outside the (Stress) Box

Employers are taking new approaches to reducing the toll of stress in the workplace.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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Managers at IBM were getting concerned that workers were stressed out by increasingly complex job roles. So they decided to attack the problem by developing a new team-based program that helps employees identify the job processes that cause the most stress within teams, and then change or eliminate them.

Dubbed POWR (for People-Oriented Work Redesign), the online program provides a tool for teams to identify low-value work tasks and resolve workload concerns, says Andrea Jackson, the Armonk, N.Y.-based technology company's manager of work/life programs.

"One team used the tool to set up new guidelines for e-mail practices," Jackson says. "By deciding just who should be copied on which types of e-mails, team members found they were wasting a lot less time wading through messages. Giving teams this kind of flexibility definitely reduces stress."

Created by IBM and Boston-based WFD Consulting, the POWR program is available to all employees via the company intranet. Its use is entirely voluntary, but teams around the globe have found it helpful, according to Jackson. Changes initiated though POWR have included upgrading technology to allow team members to work more effectively while away from the job site and defining roles within teams more clearly.

Like IBM, organizations of all types are finding that stress poses real problems for the workforce. In fact, nearly half of recently surveyed U.S. employers (48 percent) said that stress caused by working long hours is negatively affecting business performance, according to data released by Watson Wyatt Worldwide in January. At the same time, more than a third of global workers surveyed ranked stress as a leading reason they would leave a company, according to the study.

For many employers, efforts to reduce workplace stress have focused on educating workers about basic stress management. But some have found this approach inadequate, particularly when the nature of work itself is such that no amount of free massages, "stress ball" giveaways and time-management seminars will be enough -- that it's the jobs and the workplace that may need "massaging," not the employees.

That's why companies like IBM are taking their stress-reduction efforts a step further by carefully examining the actual work employees do and helping them find ways to alter or redesign it in order to reduce stress without compromising productivity.

Others are going the extra mile by re-examining the ways in which they coach and monitor employees, having found that, in some cases, their existing processes actually undermine productivity by adding to stress levels.

Getting Focused

High stress might be expected at San Francisco-based technology consulting firm Primitive Logic, where workloads are demanding, deadlines are constant and employees are frequently on the road. But the company works proactively with employees to ensure that stress doesn't undermine their productivity.

"A situation that can cause major stress is when the employee has a major deliverable, the deadline is approaching, and they do not feel that the deliverable will be of the quality it needs to be by the due date," says Kevin Moos, the firm's chief operating officer.

The company has developed a proactive mentoring program to help employers navigate such situations, with the twin goals of reducing stress and increasing productivity. Employees are coached to share their concerns with their supervisors, who then help to determine the best course of action.

"We don't want employees to feel that they have to deal with the problem on their own," Moos says. "Typically, just the simple act of sharing their concerns immediately reduces some of their stress."

Supervisors work with employees in addressing a series of questions, such as: What is the business impact if the project is a little late? How is this deliverable going to be used? What are the most important aspects of the deliverable, and how can the company focus on getting the most crucial pieces done by the deadline? Can another person be added to the project?

"Talking it through with them, creating a plan together, and then following up to make sure things are improving goes a long way to reducing their immediate and longer-term stress," says Moos. "The goal is to help them focus on what is truly important and to help avoid these situations next time."

The program has been in place since shortly after Moos joined the company nine years ago, when he and several managers developed it in-house.

"Several of us have had a lot of experience in this area, so we brainstormed, took the best of what we had seen elsewhere, threw out the worst and created the program for Primitive Logic," he says. "We continue to review and improve our program each year. We also provide the training and mentoring ourselves."

Leaders Who Serve

For managers at AlliedBarton Security Services, a King of Prussia, Pa.-based firm that provides security guards and other services to its clients, efforts to reduce workforce stress have centered on a "servant leadership" model, according to Jim Gillece, the firm's chief people officer.

Using data gathered through internal discussions and Leadership 360 surveys, the company determined that turnover and workforce stress were often caused by poor leadership. At the time of the surveys, the company was experiencing a turnover rate -- especially among its account managers -- that concerned management.

"We also found a direct correlation between employee turnover and client retention," Gillece says. "Applying this research suggested that if we were able to reduce workplace stress and turnover, we could increase engagement levels and have higher client retention."

To address the situation, the company decided to change the way managers led their employees. Managers were asked to spend more time with their direct reports and develop a greater understanding of what workers believe is important and where they focus their efforts. Through extensive conversations with employees, managers have learned about their key values, stress points and aspirations.

Using tools developed by the Denver-based Center for Talent Retention, the company's managers were trained in how to conduct focused and productive conversations with their direct reports. One tool consists of a deck of 50 cards that feature statements describing work, the work environment, manager actions and organization characteristics.

Each card features a green side and a red side: The green describes reasons why the employee would join and stay with the organization, while the red side offers examples of why the employee would not join, disengage from or leave the organization. Managers and their employees engage in a "card sort" exercise in which employees choose 15 cards they see as most accurately describing their situation at the company and their perceptions of it.

The card-sort exercise brought out issues such as employees' satisfaction with their current positions, pay and career-development opportunities. It also provided subordinates with a non-threatening venue for identifying behaviors in their supervisors that they liked and disliked, says Gillece. Both managers and workers have found the process effective in improving relationships, he says.

"Our managers worked to understand what they could do to help create the ideal work balance for each employee and better understand that employee's values," says Gillece. "The manager then partnered with the employee to help meet that person's needs. This 'servant leadership' model forces managers to focus more on their employees' needs."

To prepare managers for this shift in focus, the company conducted "leadership boot camps" for the top 150 leaders in the company. The training was delivered by HR staff with assistance from selected company leaders, including the CEO.

A "Leaders Teaching Leaders" session was conducted in an informal setting each evening during boot camp. Before each session, the CEO distributed a case study about a complex management issue that was based on his own experience.

A facilitator from AlliedBarton's HR team led each group of about 20 managers through a discussion of the case to see what challenges they would identify and how they would handle them. The CEO then discussed his approach and solution to the problem and the lessons he learned from that situation.

Overall, the results have been encouraging, Gillece says. At the end of 2007 the company was able to document a 7-percent increase in retention rates among account managers, with a simultaneous increase of 8 percent in client retention.

Other employers are identifying and modifying practices that employees find stressful. At WhittmanHart Consulting, a Chicago-based consulting firm, HR officers say the company's new online performance-management system has helped turn an otherwise stressful process -- monitoring job performance -- into something much easier. All employees, many of whom travel up to four days a week, can log into the system from any location at any hour, and enter information ranging from developing new goals

to reporting on progress in meeting job objectives. The system, which was developed with assistance from a third-party provider, has been well-received, says Vice President of HR Kathy Jeffery.

"We realized that both managers and employees feared evaluations," Jeffery says. "The online system allows us to take a 'balcony view' of our 11 office locations, and it is less stressful." Giving employees the ability to input information at their discretion also makes the process more collaborative and less of a rigid, top-down practice, she adds.

Of Zen and Serenity

Along with altering work processes, efforts to change the flow of the work day can also pay dividends when it comes to stress reduction.

Jump Associates, a San Mateo, Calif.-based consulting company, has developed an innovative work environment dubbed JumpSpace. Designed to heighten collaboration, spark creativity and limit stress among employees, it features "Zen rooms" with low, informal seating, tables and pillows for everyday workspace.

Staff who aren't feeling well or just need some rejuvenation can step into a small, private "swoon room" to grab a quick nap or simply recharge. Employees can also take advantage of diner-style booths that serve as informal spaces for alternative work locations.

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The firm also offers flexible work schedules and unlimited sick days.

"We feel our stress reduction efforts help make employees happier, more engaged and more committed," says Sheren Ghali, the firm's chief HR officer. "And that means they're more productive and are focused on their current work, not scanning for opportunities to jump ship."

In the same spirit, AchieveGlobal, a Tampa, Fla.-based training firm, has a "serenity room" in its headquarters office that provides staff a quiet place to get away from their normal workspace.

"It helps them relax and center themselves, regroup and get back in the game," says Myron Harmon, vice president for human resources.

In addition to its POWR initiative, IBM also offers workers an online stress test designed by researchers at Yale University. It poses questions about behaviors such as procrastinating, sharing problems with others and overeating when under stress. After workers complete the 15-minute exam, they receive suggested action plans based on their responses. Typical tips include breaking large jobs into smaller chunks and setting small, achievable goals.

The test has proven useful in helping employees get a handle on workplace stress, according to Rena Chenoy, the company's global program manager for work/life and mobility programs. Employees are also encouraged to avoid following traditional 9-to-5 daily routines but adjust their schedules to meet both business and personal needs instead.

"We used to call it work/life balance," Chenoy says. "In today's environment, it's not about giving equal time to work and family, but integrating the two aspects to create balance in one's life."

In keeping with this philosophy, IBM offers highly flexible work alternatives. Along with the option to work from home, employees can opt for compressed work weeks, part-time options and job-sharing. The company also does not track vacation time.

"Employees are empowered to keep track of their own vacation times," Chenoy says.

Identifying Stressors

For HR leaders who want to address this issue, the starting point seems to be an analysis of the processes that contribute to stress in a given environment.

"Processes should constantly be evaluated with effectiveness and efficiency in mind, and this evaluation should include the impact on employees and their levels of stress," says Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of human resources at the American Management Association in New York. "If there's a method that can be implemented to reduce stress without sacrificing goals, it's in the best interest of both parties to do so." 

For example, a company might need several employees to stay late each night to provide coverage for West Coast customers but wants to avoid paying overtime. At the same time, managers learn that a few employees are under considerable stress in the morning because they must struggle to get in by 9 a.m. after dropping their kids off at school.

"If the company agrees to move their shift to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., both sides benefit," he says.

John Cascone, senior vice president for Flex HR, an Atlanta-based consulting firm, recommends using job-based questionnaires to ask employees to define what they need to make the results of their efforts more productive. Asking employees to identify specific processes that make them feel frustrated can produce valuable information, he says.

Cascone also advises conducting stress-awareness programs for both managers and employees. 

"These programs should distinguish positive stress from negative stress, how to tell the difference between them and what productive actions should be taken to prevent productive stress from becoming debilitating," he says.

When employees experience "positive stress," they're actively engaged in work assignments and continue to demonstrate enthusiasm for their efforts, says Cascone. Even if they show signs of fatigue, they continue to be productive, and their efforts may have the effect of raising the productivity of co-workers.

With negative stress, he notes, employees tend to be agitated, short-tempered and increasingly withdrawn. They may exhibit patterns of increased tardiness and absenteeism, and spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why something cannot be done.

"If positive stress isn't managed competently, it can result in debilitating negative stress," Cascone says. "The best management response to positive stress is to recognize the work and effort of the employees, ask how you can help, reward effort equitably and include spouse and family where possible.

"Keep in mind that each employee has different stress thresholds," he adds. "Consequently, recognize that every employee has a point where positive stress will turn negative."

Primitive Logic's Moos advises prompt action in addressing situations that cause stress. "Don't wait until there's a problem," he says. "Look for signs of stress and situations that may turn stressful. It's much easier to solve problems in their infancy than to wait until people are at their wits' end."

The worst thing companies can do is to do nothing at all.

"It's important for corporations to do all they can to create a business atmosphere that eliminates unnecessary stress," says Avramidis.

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