Stress is a silent killer -- of people certainly, but even more commonly of morale, productivity and quality performance. Stress is also ubiquitous in the work place.
Last year's annual StressPulse (SM) survey by ComPsych Corporation, the world's largest provider of employee assistance programs, showed that more than two-thirds of employees own up to high stress levels, and almost a third confess to being so stressed they are unable to be effective at work on five or more days per year.
Expressed in dollars and cents, workplace stress costs U.S. employers an estimated $200 billion per year in absenteeism, lower productivity, staff turnover, workers' compensation, medical insurance and other stress-related expenses. No wonder many leaders in the workplace are taking the toll of stress on themselves and their associates more seriously. If concern for people isn't motive enough, concern for the bottom line certainly is.
Of course, reducing stress isn't an easy task. In fact, some find it so stressful they seek refuge in denial or anger. But medical professionals caution that if those strategies are adopted long-term, they usually take a huge toll.
On the other hand, a certain amount of stress is inherent in human life. And in healthy doses, it can inspire creativity and generate productivity. According to Robert Ostermann, professor of psychology at Fairleigh-Dickinson University, "No one reaches peak performance without being stressed, whether an athlete, an office worker or a manager." Obviously stress, like so many other things, conforms to Owen's Law: "If some is good, more will kill you."
We know the big stressors in life: the loss of a loved one, divorce, a big move, or even seemingly positive events like marriage or buying a new home. Some of these stressors can't be avoided.
But other, smaller stressors -- both on the job and off -- can work like the proverbial Chinese "death by a thousand cuts" to sap our energy, concentration and resolve. Since the 2008 economic debacle in the U.S., increased uncertainty about job security has made many people's lives much more of an ordeal.
While stress can never be eliminated altogether -- and given its benefits in small doses, we wouldn't want that -- leaders can take some steps to reduce stress to healthy levels for themselves and those they are leading. A good first step is understanding its dynamics. To that end, Ostermann has found that the level of occupational stress is determined by three dimensions -- life situations, work and self -- and that the balance between the causes of stress and available systems of support is a factor in how harmful it can be.
Osterman also notes that sources of stress vary widely. For blue collar workers, stress often is related directly to the work situation -- such as dealing with dangerous heavy equipment or working in an uncomfortable environment. In contrast, office workers are more likely to experience stress related to inter-personal relationships on the job. "People pressures" such as unclear supervision, tension among team members and fear or aversion of conflict can cause stress.
The professor also has made a discovery that can help us "unpack" -- possibly even neutralize -- some of the stress in our lives. Despite what you might expect, "there is less stress in developing countries than in developed countries," he says. This may be due in part to increased consumerism and the growing influence of advertisers who "try to convince the consuming public that a want is a need," he adds.
Christian author Rodney Clapp says that in the last two centuries American culture has gone from the sanctification of choice to the deification of dissatisfaction.That is to say, we have made a hunger for more stuff the central organizing principle of our lives. Since there is always more to have -- be it more power or more possessions -- First World people more typically find themselves under constant stress.
Osterman strikes a resonant note when he points to different sets of values in developed and developing countries. In developed nations, he says, there often is an emphasis on what is possessed or how much money is earned. Meanwhile, "in many developing countries, the value of family and nation is much stronger than it is here in the U.S." This strong value system provides support for people in these cultures and may enable them to deal with greater amounts of stress.
The observations of Clapp and Osterman won't help us handle all the stress in our lives. Joel Harmon, an associate professor at Fairleigh Dickinson points out that, "The greatest reported cause of stress is workload. Employees work more today than they did 25 years ago -- the equivalent of a 13th month every year. Staff are getting downsized but the work remains, so workloads are getting upsized."
Add the uncertainty to layoffs, mergers and bankruptcies, and work is likely to continue being a stressor for the vast majority of people who are blessed to have jobs.
However, there's no point in letting the stress in our lives mount because our values are driving us to make a god of what we're lacking -- especially when most of us live better than any generation before us.
Our first suggestion for managing the stress in your life: keep a gratitude journal. At least once a week -- more often if you can -- take a few minutes to write down the most important blessings in you life and then thank God for them. Scientific research shows that this simple practice will improve your life and begin to reduce some of the stress you are feeling.
Now, during Lent, is an especially good time to revisit the Habits we recommend in The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus. We can't eliminate all the stress in our lives. But we can bring it down to manageable levels by imbuing our lives with healthy habits that remind us that God is supreme and that He loves us beyond all measure despite any of our shortcomings. Happy Lent!
Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute