Do Something!

Frazzled employees are no good for business. Stop their stress before it starts.
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4 min read

This story appears in the March 2008 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Peter Bechtel can always spot stressed-out employees. They're the ones who start taking more sick days. Their tempers often flare more easily. Sometimes, they just have a look about them. "You can tell when an employee is stressed out because they carry it on their face," says Bechtel, CEO of 8-year-old eCast, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based clinical research firm.

Last summer, Bechtel was seeing more stress around the office and was feeling it himself, so he decided to do something about it. He noticed work e-mail was being used at all hours and the company's 86 employees were overloaded, so he asked them to stop using e-mail for in-depth work discussions and introduced a shared electronic calendar. Departmental meetings are now limited to less than 30 minutes. The company improved its orientation processes for new hires after they said it could use some tweaking. And Bechtel started visiting employees' offices for quick one-on-ones to make sure everyone is kept in the loop. Adjusting how the work is structured has helped reduce employee stress levels. "Employees have responded very positively," says Bechtel, 55.

Catered lunches and health club memberships are nice perks that relieve stress and boost morale, but sometimes they're just Band-Aids for the structural problems employees encounter on the job, whether it's deciphering unclear job responsibilities, juggling too many deadlines, balancing work with family or being micromanaged via spreadsheet. It all adds up to work stress, which costs employers an estimated $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turn-over, lower productivity, higher medical costs and more, according to the American Institute of Stress.

Still, for employers, it's been simpler to throw in a few extras (back massage, anyone?) than to question what it is about the work that's stressing employees out. "It's always easier to deal with symptoms [of employee stress] than to invest in uncovering underlying problems," says Christine Pearson, a professor of management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, who studies counterproductive workplace behaviors. "There's more certainty in addressing symptoms."

A handful of large employers are realizing they need to address the causes of employee stress instead of just massaging the symptoms. In 2001, United Kingdom-based pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline rolled out its Team Resilience program, a team-based strategy for reducing employee stress by changing how jobs are structured. GSK team members take an online stress assessment that's evaluated by a third party, then department managers create a stress reduction plan based on the results. The program "starts a conversation about how work gets done," says Ann Kuhnen, GSK's vice president for U.S. employee health management.

In one case, a GSK team was stressed out over constant late-night number crunching for a manager who didn't read the reports right away. "They talked about the arbitrary timeline, and it was adjusted," Kuhnen says. Between 2003 and 2006, work-related mental-health problems at GSK declined 60 percent and mental-health absences decreased 29 percent.

You can start your own conversations with employees about work stress, where it comes from and what they see as the most distressing parts of their jobs. "It's a simple but courageous conversation to have," says Kathie Lingle, director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress at WorldatWork, an HR professional organization. And attacking stress at its source is likely cheaper for entrepreneurial firms than for larger ones because there are fewer people to ask, Pearson says.

The need to tackle the sources of job stress will only increase over the next decade amid faster technologies, continued globalization and the persistent push for innovation. Taking steps now can pay off: At eCast, internal e-mail volume has dropped more than 50 percent, and only one employee has left since the company updated its policies. "This is not rocket science," Bechtel says. "What you can't do in a fast-moving company is sit on a process and assume that it's good." Standing up to job stress certainly hasn't hurt eCast's bottom line: Annual sales exceed $5 million.

Chris Penttila is a freelance journalist in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area.

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