How Employers can Reduce Stress in the Workplace to Promote Employees’ Health and Well-being in order to Improve Job Performance
Stress is actually a common dilemma that affects workers and consequently employers, resulting in adverse business outcomes such as low productivity and profitability as well as increased absenteeism and employee turnover levels. Moreover, job challenges involve an intensive daily routine to meet the demands of the labour market, which nowadays can be characterized by too much flexibility, job insecurity, rapid innovation and constant changes, therefore all these factors may impact on individuals’ well-being and also their performance at work.
Nowadays, stress is considered a complex issue for employers regarding employees’ health and well-being and consequently, how it affects their job performance. External aspects like the impact of economic booms on competitiveness in international markets triggered the first signs of strain that become present in working people’s lives (Cooper et al., 2001). Another relevant point is the effect of a recession on organisations, where their structures are downsized and flattened, resulting in fewer people doing more work and also facing job insecurity (Cooper et al., 2001). The downsizing and the rapidity of change in organisations have certainly affected many workers, leading to flexible forms of employment like part-time working, short-term contracts or a freelance culture by ‘outsourcing’ (Cooper et al., 2001). Additionally, the rapid expansion of technology has resulted in the availability of too much information and accelerated the pace of work, hence individuals are overloaded (Cooper et al., 2001). These external circumstances have undermined the psychological contract between employer and employee due to the instability of the labour market and many organisational changes, therefore employees’ stress results in demotivation and lack of loyalty (Cooper et al., 2001).
The term ‘stress’ can be understood as ‘distress’, when people cope with too many or too few pressures and strains (Brown and Ralph, 1994). According to Tom Cox (1987, cited in Brown and Ralph, 1994, p. 12), stress at work is ‘… to do with coping, or failing to cope with the demands and constraints placed on the person. It is to do with the person’s realisation that they have a problem which they cannot adequately or easily deal with’. Also, stress refers to too much challenge or conflict in any aspect of life (e.g. domestic problems – Stewart, 1992). On the other hand, health is synonymous with well-being, which is an interaction between the individual (personality, skills and experience) and the environment (psychosocial and physical issues – Stewart, 1992).
Moreover, employers must be able to recognise stress and its outcomes in the workplace by observing employees’ behaviour such as job dissatisfaction, low levels of productivity, inability to concentrate and meet deadlines, negative humour, unwillingness to cooperate, inability to listen to advice or criticism, feelings of alienation, being accident prone and loss of confidence (Brown and Ralph, 1994). These employee outcomes of stress decrease general well-being and performance levels (Brown and Ralph, 1994). However, individuals differ in how they respond to stress and also how they interpret stressful situations; depending on their past experience, personality, beliefs, vulnerabilities and resources, a situation perceived as threatening by one person may be seen as challenging or may not be significant to another (Education Service Advisory Committee, 1990, cited in Brown and Ralph, 1994).
With regard to stress management, leaders still prefer to spend money on what brings a measurable return and they tend to ignore costs that involve stress interventions in the work environment (Stewart, 1992). Nonetheless, it is easier to estimate the commercial cost caused by stress when managers have an employee certificate of absence from work because of sickness for more than three days (Stewart, 1992). This indicates that companies incur expenses due to mistakes made by workers under stress such as wrong decisions, wasted time, extended lunch hours, too much alcohol and tobacco and poor monitoring of performance, though they are difficult to assess (Stewart, 1992). Likewise, prevention is worthwhile because it will decrease absenteeism and labour turnover costs (Stewart, 1992). Therefore, it is important for managers to invest in their staff’s well-being by developing stress management programmes with a view to providing better support for individuals to resolve their issues (Stewart, 1992). This can be expensive, but it will raise morale and productivity (Stewart, 1992).
According to the JD-R model (Demerouti et al., 2001), every occupation has specific work characteristics that can be defined within two categories (Bakker et al., 2004, p. 86): job demands (e.g. high work pressure, workload and role ambiguity) refer to ‘those physical, psychological, social, or organisational aspects of the job that require sustained physical and/or psychological (cognitive and emotional) effort and are therefore associated with certain physiological and/or psychological costs’; and job resources (e.g. salary, career opportunities, supervisor and co-worker support, performance feedback, role clarity and autonomy) concern ‘those physical, psychological, social, or organisational aspects of the job that are (1) functional in achieving work goals; (2) reduce job demands and the associated physiological and psychological costs; or (3) stimulate personal growth and development.’
It is important to realise that the major asset of an organisation is its people, though many entrepreneurs do not behave as they should as they do not make any attempt to care for their employees’ health or promote their well-being (Macdonald, 2005). Unfortunately, employers fail by not giving attention to this subject and lose many business opportunities, as when workers feel healthy, they are empowered to perform effectively, cope well with pressure and work in partnership with the company to accomplish its targets (Macdonald, 2005). The protection and promotion of employees’ health and well-being can bring advantages to the staff and also to the organisation, for example, increased energy, motivation, team performance and profitability (Macdonald, 2005). Therefore, entrepreneurs must invest in procedures that promote health and well-being in the workplace, because it empowers individuals to work to the best of their abilities, enhancing business capacity and competitive advantage (Macdonald, 2005).
Moreover, work stress causes adverse individual and organisational outcomes, and entrepreneurs need to be aware of how to identify and develop procedures in order to prevent, control and manage stress in the work environment (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002). Certainly, these procedures can be defined as interventions, involving a range of practices that offer opportunities for the person’s development and well-being (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002). Nonetheless, Kompier and Cooper (1999, cited in Giga et al., 2013, p. 114) argued that stress intervention practices focus on low individual stress outcomes and fail to reduce actual stressors from the workplace, hence entrepreneurs tend to be reluctant to invest in and implement such practices due to: (1) ‘senior management failing to take responsibility, blaming employee personality and lifestyle rather than work environment factors’; (2) ‘concentration on subjective and individual differences’; (3) ‘the extreme difficulty of adhering to a systematic intervention and evaluation strategies within changing organisational settings’; and (4) ‘the lack of definite empirical evidence on the costs and benefits (e.g. financial effects) of stress interventions’. Consequently, these interventions may fall short, because they provide a limited solution or fail to determine the broad contextual and structural problems in which organisational behaviour takes place (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002). Also, the reasons why many interventions depreciate quickly may be through a lack of or little knowledge of managers about stress, and the extent to which a company has the responsibility to handle stress-related problems, and design and implement adequate programmes conforming to individual and organisational needs (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002).
Specifically, employers must bear in mind that stress management is extremely significant to maintain employees’ well-being and their effective performance, so they need to establish different levels of intervention and the best strategies (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002). Also, it is essential to identify future directions for the development of stress management as well as critically evaluating the benefits and limitations of divergent intervention strategies (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002). According to Dewe and O’Driscoll (2002, p. 144), stress interventions can be classified as: (1) primary (proactive) aims to ‘reduce the intensity or number of stressors through strategies such as job redesign or workload reduction’; (2) secondary (proactive and reactive) assists ‘employees to cope more effectively through a range of stress management training programmes’ and; (3) tertiary (reactive) concentrates on ‘the rehabilitation of employees who have experienced or suffered the consequences of work stress’. In practice, secondary and tertiary level interventions are more commonly used in companies, while the use of primary interventions seems to be sparse (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002).
Another significant point is how job stressors are recognised and diagnosed in organisations through regular monitoring and auditing of employees’ health (Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2002). In view of that, HR and line managers are key professionals who should be interested in managing stress in companies, thus they should carry out stress audits to measure the well-being-related costs caused by stress and its association with low productivity and profitability, illness, depression, absenteeism, decreased creativity, turnover, lateness, accidents through performance appraisal ratings and employee attitude surveys (Losyk, 2006; Waterman et al., 2002; Stewart, 1992).
n summary, any stress management intervention must be created from the data provided by a stress audit (e.g. climate survey), and the needs analysis must instigate the employer’s reflection based on some of the following questions (Losyk, 2006): What are the main job stressors in the organisation? How do they affect employees? What do people understand about stress management? Also, every stress management intervention should be carried out on all staff regardless of role, even if there is little or no stress apparent (Losyk, 2006). As an illustration, stress management training is an important action to keep employers and managers aware of stress and its consequences for people and organisations; providing knowledge, changes in beliefs, attitudes, habits and behaviour as well as promoting meetings with employees post-training to discuss stress-related problems (Losyk, 2006). Therefore, they will be able to deal with stressed-out members, having the relevant skills to supervise their teams during tough times (Losyk, 2006).
The development, implementation and evaluation of effective organisational /individual-level stress programmes can be achieved if employers and managers understand that these are long-term programmes, focusing on participant and business needs, and their respective aims (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). The inclusion of these programmes is based on specific criteria such as (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987, p. 138): (1) managers must be ‘familiar with the principles of each of the programmes’; (2) ‘the programmes can improve organisational performance outcomes’; and (3) ‘the programmes can be applied by management in organisations of any size’. Thus, the following are some of the recommended programmes for leaders with a view to stimulating employee well-being and better performance in the workplace:
Organisational Culture: this programme builds a supportive and open culture and climate, ensuring that the management style is appropriate with regard to the organisational goals (Sutherland and Cooper, 2000). Furthermore, goal setting is an essential component in the organisational culture that contributes to a range of benefits such as improved productivity and quality of work life, ‘clarifying expectations, relieving boredom and also providing feedback on performance, which increase employees’ pride and self-confidence’ (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987, p. 139). Once goals are established and require action, they can diminish uncertainty and anxiety; consequently reducing stress levels and then managers can help employees to set themselves challenging goals; establishing a period of time for delivery while at the same time developing their talents, efforts and creativity to be able to accomplish them (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). Therefore, this programme tends to be meaningful and useful for promoting feedback on how members are progressing and it also develops a culture that encourages staff to be more supportive of each other (Sutherland and Cooper, 2000).
Participative Decision-Making: this programme contributes to the physical and mental health of employees. When workers participate in decision-making processes, they experience high levels of satisfaction, they are more open to communication, and they show better organisational commitment (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). The best forms of participation can be defined as consensus ‘decisions are widely discussed and become final only when everyone agrees’ or pure delegation ‘decision power is given to employees, and they make decisions whatever they wish’ (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987, p. 141). This programme motivates senior management to provide adequate communication to the team; listening and considering employees’ views as well as stimulating their participation in the decision-making process (Giga et al., 2013). Finally, effective participation involves keeping employees empowered, informed and rewarded properly, thus this programme may result in increased motivation and effective work performance (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987).
Job Enrichment: There are five core job features that influence job enrichment such as autonomy (freedom to do the job), feedback (informing workers how well the job is being done), skill variety (the use of employee skills), task identity (completion of work), and task significance (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). Thus, there are specific conditions that are necessary for this type of programme to be successful: individuals must be motivated by the five core job features and they must learn and develop the necessary abilities to perform the enriched job (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). Moreover, job redesign is included in this programme, which is described as job control when individuals are provided with choice in designing their work tasks that have some significance to them, and so that they are provided with incentives and opportunities to use their skills (Giga et al., 2013). Thus, it is important that people get involved in redesigning their jobs, which could involve job-rotation to avoid repetitive, routine, and boring job activities (Losyk, 2006).
In addition, on this programme, workload is also analysed in job redesign, because people are not expected to cope with unrealistic deadlines, staff shortages and other performance requirements (Sutherland and Cooper, 2000). Indeed, managers should stimulate open discussions with their members about any concerns that affect working conditions as well as analysing staffing levels, downsizing cost-effects and job redesign to decrease work overload stress (Sutherland and Cooper, 2000). Therefore, this programme is beneficial because employees believe they are doing a meaningful job that they have responsibility for it, and more importantly, they are getting feedback from their supervisors in order to enhance their work performance (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987).
Work-Family Support: companies that are family supportive have less-stressed employees and lower turnover rates (Losyk, 2006). Flexible work scheduling is an example of work-family support which facilitates people’s lives and responsibilities; adjusting home/job commitments such as compressed working weeks, job sharing, family leave, dependent care and telecommuting (Losyk, 2006). Therefore, this programme improves work-life balance, impacting positively on employees’ well-being and job performance as well as promoting a firm’s positive reputation in the labour market (Losyk, 2006).
Stress Management Training Programmes (SMTs): they intend to enhance participants’ knowledge of how dysfunctional stress can affect health, work behaviour and job performance (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). This training can be designed and delivered as lectures, case studies, self-awareness questionnaires and small-group discussions in one-day or two-day sessions (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). The programme session handles training techniques that encourage self-analysis, discussion and stimulation; suggesting topics that include an overview of stress, coping methods and developing a personal plan (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). SMTs can be classified as:
(1) Problem-Solving: this training can increase coping skills and be conducted one to one or in small groups (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). The trainer helps participants to identify their problems and encourages them to move towards each problem-solving step to reach their goals through practice and feedback (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987).
(2) Assertiveness: this type of training involves a specific analysis of assertive and non-assertive behaviours such as eye contact, posture, gestures and voice modulation (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). This is applicable in situations that participants may find personally problematic, for example, discussing a difficult performance review with a boss (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). A common technique used is ‘role-play’, which brings performance feedback to the participants and suggestions for the improvement of attitudinal changes (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987).
(3) Time-Management: this training programme is related to self-responsibility, the actual skills acquired and also the knowledge needed to make changes (Matteson and Ivancevich, 1987). The training objectives are (Losyk, 2006): identifying how to track the time spent in performing the tasks; sorting out urgent and important priorities; organising and restoring information; avoiding procrastination and getting tasks done; knowing how to deal with interruptions; being able to say ‘no’ when it is necessary; sorting out disorder and paperwork; and learning how to conduct effective meetings.
The literature also suggests wellness education programmes which are useful to support individuals in alleviating stress symptoms in the work setting when they practise the following techniques:
Relaxation: this programme enables individuals to take control over their emotional behaviours by concentrating on breathing and muscle calming exercises to release tension (Giga et al., 2013). It also helps people to develop their ability to occasionally relax when feeling stressed, learning how to cope and behave during tough situations (Giga et al., 2013).
Massage: this is an effective therapy against stress, helping people to relax and become more mentally alert (Losyk, 2006). Massage is also powerful in eliminating muscle tightness, stiffness and pain associated with sitting or standing in one position all day (Losyk, 2006, p. 14).
Meditation: this programme helps people to decrease stress symptoms such as anxiety, tension and insomnia (Giga et al., 2013). If the person practises it frequently, this reduces strains levels through breathing exercises, for example (Giga et al., 2013).
Exercise: this programme is beneficial for the cardiovascular system, and if practised regularly, it can protect individuals from stress and from its negative effects on physical and mental health (Giga et al., 2013).
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: this is a form of stress prevention training and also rational-emotive behavioural therapy recommended for enhancing psychological well-being (Giga et al., 2013).
Biofeedback: this is a measurement tool for learning, identifying and responding to information received such as muscle and skin movement (Giga et al., 2013). Usually, this programme is combined with other stress interventions such as relaxation (Giga et al., 2013).
Finally, the successful implementation of stress management programmes produces positive changes, but it is also necessary to measure their effectiveness (Losyk, 2006). Further evidence can be collected through individual interviews and group discussions with a view to finding out people’s perceptions of the programmes and whether they are actually working (Losyk, 2006). Also, it is possible to make comparisons of post-programme on how organisational performance has improved in areas including level of sales, quality of service and number of mistakes (Losyk, 2006). Thus, the use of such programmes shows senior management that lowered stress levels are linked to business success, and it empowers their continuity, justifying their costs which will in turn result in increased funding for more training and interventions (Losyk, 2006).
This study also recommended the implementation of stress management programmes by employers which are relevant to organisational and individual needs, teaching managers and employees about stress and its effects in the workplace. Some of these programmes guide upper management and teams in terms of how to deal with the demands of competitiveness; setting priorities during the performance of job duties in order to reach company targets; and also encouraging employees to communicate their feelings about working conditions as well as providing frequent performance appraisals, counselling and career advice (Steward, 1992).