It pays to tackle workplace related stress in organisations, writes Angela Priestley, but a shift in culture will go further than even the most expensive organisational programs
The prevalence of workplace-related stress
in our lives proves that the human body
and mind is not conditioned to simply take
everything thrown at it. The human body has its limits, and when
it reaches such limits the problems can be diabolical
– for the individual affected, for their employer, and
for the safety and wellbeing of those employees,
customers and partners around them.
Stress is described as an emotional experience. In
the workplace, it usually emerges in response to an
employee being asked to take on more work,
pressure and demands than their knowledge,
abilities and time can handle. For some, it can be
simply shaken off as another aspect of work. For
others, it can be severely debilitating.
And for organisations, it can also be significantly
In 2008, a Medibank study found that workplace
stress is costing the economy $14.81 billion a year.
It estimated that on average, 3.2 days per worker
are lost each year due to workplace stress and that
stress related absenteeism and presenteeism is
costing Australian employers $10.11 billion a year.
The causes of work-related stress are easy to
identify. Australian employees work some of the longest
hours in the world according the Australia Institute.
Those long hours, coupled with bad management, a
toxic work environment and job security concerns all
culminate to encourage stress amongst employees.
In a world where stress appears more of an issue
than ever before, it’s easy for organisations to get
caught up in an endless stream of advice on just how
to manage stress in the workplace.
It seems, however, that managing stress in the
workplace need not be an overly onerous, nor
costly exercise. Instead, it requires some smart
thinking, the right people, and the ability to respond
to the needs of employees as they occur.
At storage infrastructure company NetApp the
number of established employee wellbeing and
engagement programs are limited.
But the organisation must be getting something
right. This year, in the annual BRW Best Places to
Work Survey, NetApp knocked Google off the top
spot to take out the prize of Australia’s best place to
work for themselves.
While Peter O’Connor, NetApp vice president for
Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia, told HR Leader his organisation has explored few programs aimed at specifically
reducing stress in his organisation – aside from subsidised gym memberships –
it’s clear that much of the way the organisation is run ultimately contributes to a
strong sense of employee wellbeing, and consequently addresses stress.
He notes that the organisation is essentially committed to implementing the
requests of employees – thus granting staff the inexpensive reassurance that their
needs are being heard. “It’s that management are listening and we’re putting
things in place that the staff want,” O’Connor says.
As for an office equipped with free food, beanbags and game consoles,
O’Connor says he prefers to keep things simple. “We focus more on trust and
empowerment, flexibility and work hours, putting people in the roles they enjoy
and providing training and guidance to make them as successful as they can
be,” he says.
Such factors contribute to what Gallup Consulting label as the five
dimensions of wellbeing, based on 15 years of international research. The
first dimension is career wellbeing, the second social wellbeing, then physical
wellbeing, financial wellbeing and community wellbeing.
Allan Watkinson, engagement manager at Gallup Consulting, believes that
the best stress management programs in organisations address these five factors.
Speaking to such factors could involve a significant investment – through
programs like financial planning services, gym memberships and additional
annual leave to participate in community service. However, such factors can also
be addressed via less costly opportunities, like encouraging employees to come in
late to work and allowing time for exercise in the morning, enabling real flexible
work opportunities, and introducing a more social and interactive environment.
Recognising a need for that first dimension of career wellbeing appears relevant
in some of the reasoning behind why NetApp is considered such a great place to
work – as well as a significant factor in reducing workplace stress and overall
creating a happy, healthy and engaged workforce.
Watkinson says career wellbeing includes such factors as giving employees
autonomy, clear expectations, a sense of purpose and allowing people to play
to their strengths.
O’Connor can especially relate to this and notes that people may join
organisations but they will leave managers, thus it’s essential that the right
people enter management.
Of around 20 NetApp managers, O’Connor says 15 have been promoted from
within his organisation. He sees this as positive because such managers have direct
experience with the company and can grant empathy for their direct reports. From
there, he ensures that those individuals are regularly updated with training on
employee engagement and retaining staff.
Again, Watkinson highlights career wellbeing as a significant area where
the stress levels of employees can be addressed and in particular where
organisations should seek to get management right. He also notes that not all
employees wish to be managers, nor carry management abilities, and such
employees should be offered alternative career paths that recognise their work
and development without forcing them into management.
Social engagement is also important in workplaces and for managing overall
workplace stress. Again, increasing social activity can be relatively cheap to
deploy – it does, after all, start with encouraging a noisy workplace where
employees feel they are welcome to interact. Watkinson reflects on recent
research that found people need at least six hours of social activity a day in
order to be socially happy. “Not banning Facebook or social media, but
making better use of it would be a good place to start. It’s about introducing a
more fun environment,” he says.
Overall, Watkinson says organisations need to accept the impact of
workplace related stress on employees and seek to mitigate such risks. But he
also notes that creative thinking can ensure that such efforts do not need to be a
costly affair – but can in turn return some significant benefits.
“When employees have a high wellbeing, when their lives are thriving in a
number of areas, that’s when we start to see things like productivity improve,
absenteeism reduce. That’s when we see people staying with organisations
longer,” he says.
And as O’Connor finds, it pays to protect the wellbeing of employees – and pick
up a few accolades along the way. “The amount of people who want to now come
and work here is staggering,” he says.