Stress Case

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.

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This article was originally published in the November 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Stress Case.

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