From the November 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

A business owner can ignore employee stress--if he or she doesn't care about employee productivity and creativity," says Allan Rabinowitz, owner of Stress Strategies Resources in Los Angeles. "We know that when stress goes up, work quality goes down--and absenteeism and conflicts between employees increase. If you want your employees doing their best work, you simply have to care about their stress levels."

That's the bottom line: Working to cut employee stress is not feel-good management; it's dollars-and-cents management. If you don't attend to the waves of tension washing over your workers, you just might find your business wiped out.


Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com

Stressed Out

Maybe you're thinking that stress is simply an inescapable part of the entrepreneurial environment. And, for you, that might be true. It's even arguable that good entrepreneurs thrive on stress--the more stress they're under, the tougher they fight. "But you need to recognize that employees aren't entrepreneurs--they aren't as driven as you are," says Richard Hagberg, an organizational psychologist and president of Hagberg Consulting Group in Foster City, California.

"The name of the entrepreneurial game is getting long-term results," adds Hagberg, whose consulting practice centers around high-flying Silicon Valley computing companies. "To survive, you may have to push your people occasionally. But when stress becomes a way of life in your company, employees will leave because in today's full-employment economy, people have lots of choices."

Look at your balance sheet, and the arithmetic is compelling. When stress is out of control, productivity tumbles, creativity sags and good employees take flight. So how can you lower stress levels in your company? One way to start is to break stress into two clusters: stressors that you as the business owner can control and those you can't. Despite your best intentions, you can't change how your competitors behave and you can do little to impact the conduct of customers.

But there are stressors you can change. "For instance, is there ambiguity about job descriptions and the responsibilities of individual workers?" asks David Munz, a professor of psychology at St. Louis University who consults with businesses on stress-reduction programs. "Employees tell us that's a big stressor, and it's common. Do employees have the information and resources they need to complete their tasks in a timely and satisfactory fashion? When they don't, they'll feel a lot of stress."

One way to combat stress in your workplace is to look around for glaring trouble spots. Then ask workers what bugs them, and listen hard. You won't be able to resolve every annoyance they point to, but odds are, you'll be able to lessen at least some of their tension.

Another stress buster--and morale booster--is to give employees more control over their workload and pace. "When employees don't have that control, they feel substantial stress, especially in small businesses, where many workers feel the boss is always looking over their shoulder," says Paul Spector, an industrial and organizational psychology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

It's easy to put too much on an employee's plate--especially when you have a high performer who is always willing to do more. But eventually, stress will set in and performance will suffer. The antidote is to give your employees more control--but how? Make it clear that when employees feel overloaded, you want them to speak up so you can find ways to lighten their burden. And if they do speak up, be grateful for their honesty--don't make them feel they can't pull their weight.

While you're at it, empower your employees to set limits on how many hours they'll work. "We're seeing more of this, even in Silicon Valley," reports Hagberg. "Employees are putting caps on how many hours they'll work, and they're flatly refusing to work weekends."

Your first reaction may be "How dare they!" But lighten up. It's genuinely for the good of your company to have employees set limits on work hours. Why? Research is clear that when employees have abundant and satisfying lives outside the office, they cope better with workplace stress. Granted, there will be times--during crises and emergencies--that you'll need to ask workers to suck it up and put in extra hours. But, on the whole, respect their desire to set boundaries.

A third step is to "create a compelling vision for the company and its future, and link current activities to achieving that vision," says Hagberg. "When people clearly see what they're striving for and how what they're doing today relates to that, they can live with a much higher level of stress for a longer period of time. When they feel they're on a mission, their ability to cope with stress increases." It's up to you to articulate a vision your employees will buy into.

Keeping Stress At Bay

Even if you do all this, your workers are still likely to feel some stress; that's just a fact of today's business environment. But helping employees develop stress-management skills will help them cope when busy times hit. "While you have to be committed to reducing stressors in the environment, employees need to develop skills so they don't experience so much wear and tear from the stressors you can't change," says Munz.

Stress-reduction techniques can be relatively simple. "I teach people to relax and count their own breaths as they breathe deeply, for instance," says Rabinowitz. "It takes only a few second, but it works." Master that technique, then teach it to employees for them to use when their stress levels jump off the meter.

Other proven techniques include going for a walk, engaging in some brisk exercise (such as doing 20 push-ups), meditating on your favorite vacation spot or counting down slowly from 100 to zero. "People can learn to relax," says Spector. "And every employee should know a few relaxation techniques they can depend on in tough moments."

A good idea is to post four or five stress-busting techniques where employees can see them, such as in the break room or kitchen. Ask them to add ideas they find useful--and encourage all employees to put stress-reduction techniques into practice whenever the need arises.

As in most workplace situations, communication is crucial to keeping stress in check. "If employees feel there are avenues [of communication], their stress goes down," says Venetta Campbell, a psychology professor at Mt. St. Mary's College in Los Angeles. "You can get good results just by encouraging employees to get together over a brown-bag lunch once a week to share concerns and to relate stress-management tools that work for them."

Whether it's encouraging workers to blow off steam with vigorous lunch-time walks or just holding a one-hour meeting to talk about stress and its solutions in your business, know that whatever you do to help your workers cope with stress, good things will result. "Just the fact that you acknowledge that stress is an issue and show a willingness to work on it reduces stress in the workplace," says Munz. "Take steps, and employees will appreciate it."

Next Step

Looking for more stress-busting tips? Try http://www.jobstresshelp.com an online consulting resource developed by psychotherapist Bill DeLeno that provides loads of free information.

Contact Sources

Hagberg Consulting Group, (650) 377-0232, http://www.hcgnet.com

Stress Strategies Resources, 12381 Wilshire Blvd., #200, Los Angeles, CA 90025, (310) 4-STRESS