Stretching dollars on stress

by 19 Aug 2010

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 expensive.

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.

Facing reality

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.

Keeping well

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.