Treat the Causes Not the Symptoms: A Surprising Approach to Minimizing Workplace Stress

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By: Meredith Masse

Are your employees sick and tired at work? Do you know the cost of workplace stress to your company? Is your company investing in wellness programs in an attempt to combat the cost of workplace stress?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting companies stop encouraging healthier habits in employees. But do realize you’re treating symptoms versus true causes.

The Cost of Workplace Stress

A recent article in the Harvard Gazette uncovered shocking data about the cost of workplace stress for American businesses and for their employees. Highlighted in this article, and according to a survey from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they found:

  • Nearly half – 44% – of working adults say that their current job affects their overall health and only 28% of those believe that the effect is a good one.
  • Still more data shows that 36% of workers suffer from work-related stress, and that work-related stress costs U.S. businesses $30 billion a year in lost workdays.

Now that I have your attention…

The Band-Aid

So, naturally, many organizations are attracted to the idea of wellness programs to support employees (and the company’s bottom line).

But “It isn’t all … ‘if we only go to the gym and have an apple every day, [workplace stress] will all go away,’” said the survey’s director, Robert J. Blendon, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard Chan School.

Treat the Causes, Not the Symptoms

I will never claim to have all the answers to the workplace stress conundrum. I’m not a doctor nor do I even play one on TV. But as someone who spent the first 15 years of my professional life sick to my stomach on Sunday nights dreading the work week ahead, I do have some ideas about what companies can do to counter the root causes of workplace stress.

It starts with understanding the Three Parts of the Mind (in italics below) in which, when there is a major disconnect, stress can occur. The good news is these root causes can be addressed versus merely treating the symptoms.

Root causes of stress from each part of the mind, in order from most obvious to least obvious:

1. Missing Cognitive Abilities
(Or, the “Can I do it?” part of the job.)

The definition of cognition: the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses.

No big surprises here. In other words, “Can I do it? Do I have the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform the duties and responsibilities?” If the answer is no or not yet, there is a disconnect between what the employee can do and what the job requires. Some solutions address cognitive disconnects;

  • Trainingteach them exactly what they need to know and know how to do to do the job well.
  • Reinforcement – reinforce early and often and with on-the-job experience using what they learned in training to make the new knowledge “stick.” (Ask us about our just-unveiled iLead programs with “next-level” development reinforcement!)
  • Coaching – invest in coaching to support employees when they try applying new skills and knowledge, especially when the outcomes aren’t exactly like the ones discussed in a training.
  • Mentoring or Apprenticeships – pair employees with more knowledgeable subject matter experts to learn from those for whom this isn’t their first rodeo.

2. Affective Disconnects
(Or, the “Do I want to do it?” part of the job.)

The definition of affect: touch the feelings of (someone); move emotionally.

In other words, do employees feel good and WANT to go to work each day? Do they buy in to the “why” of the organization, their team, their supervisor and their individual role? If the answer is no and the company hasn’t done a great job of communicating, author Simon Sinek says, in fact, leaders must “Start with why.”  Not new but certainly under used.

The solution: communicate early and often about the company’s why to build a culture that engages employees to want to be there.

And the BIG SURPRISE, least obvious and, in my opinion, the single most critical cause of workplace stress to address…

3. Conative Stress
(Or, the “Will I do it?” part of the job.)

This one is likely a new term to many. The definition of conation: the mental faculty of purpose, desire or will to perform an action; volition.

In other words, does each employee have what it takes to get the job done and do it well? This question is all about whether employees have the natural strengths and the right instincts for how the job needs to get done. For example, if you have a natural researcher whose instincts are to ask more questions to get specifics and strategize solutions in a role that really requires them to brainstorm, create alternatives, improvise and innovate, you have a massive conative gap… and likely a very stressed employee.

The solution: understand each employee’s natural strengths and instincts and understand the instincts needed to get the job done well using Kolbe instruments, then match the right people to the roles that need their conative strengths and watch stress wane and productivity soar!

To learn more about the tackling the causes of workplace stress to find sustainable cures, join ICC Senior Vice President Meredith Masse on one of these upcoming webinars:

STRESS! The High Cost of Workplace Stress and What to Do About It (Really)

Have other ideas for treating the causes not just the symptoms of workplace stress? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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