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Release Stress and Build Resilience

Workers are inundated daily with news about a struggling global economy, corporate downsizing, government cutbacks and strife, declining wages, growing health scares and political turmoil. It’s no wonder workers report feeling more stressed than ever. Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 8, 2011, a Harris Interactive survey done on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) found 36 percent of workers reported experiencing regular work stress.

Worse, stressed-out employees may be more prone to sickness and absenteeism, make mistakes, perform poorly, make bad decisions and engage in conflict. Teamwork and employee-management relationships also can suffer, and these factors can have a direct impact on engagement and the bottom line. A 2010 Gallup study of 42,000 workers found employee stress and disengagement could cost U.S. businesses as much as $350 billion per year.

Stress management programs can help employees better cope with the pressure. But there is growing evidence that suggests learning leaders can actually teach employees the skills necessary to bounce back from the negative impact of stress and build a more resilient workforce. Further, CLOs soon may have the ability to mitigate the human and organizational costs of stress.

Reading Stress Signs

But first, they need to assess the impact of organizational stress via metrics such as engagement levels, absenteeism, workers’ compensation, turnover and medical leave. This data provides the baseline to evaluate improvement initiatives.

Second, CLOs can implement processes that build resilient leaders such as employee wellness programs, fitness initiatives, internally sponsored team resiliency sessions, communities of practice devoted to creating resilient workplaces, individual leader assessment and executive coaching.

Identifying stress in the workplace is not as easy as one might think. In some offices phones ring off the hook, employees dash about clutching stacks of paper and music blares in the background. In other offices workers labor away in solitude, rarely exit their cubicles, and there is only the drone of clicking keyboards.

But if we ask employees from the first office to discuss their work environment they may describe it as energizing or challenging, rather than stressful. The employees at the second office may say they struggle with overwhelming workloads, unrealistic deadlines and interpersonal conflict, despite what appears to be a calm atmosphere. In short, stress is what we feel, not what we see.

The aforementioned APA study pinpointed factors that cause employees to feel higher levels of stress, including lack of opportunities for growth and advancement (43 percent), heavy workload (43 percent), unrealistic job expectations (40 percent) and long hours (39 percent). Further, some 47 percent of employees said they did not receive adequate non-monetary rewards and recognition for their work, and 43 percent reported being dissatisfied with their employer’s work-life practices.

The obvious cost of these work-related frustrations is high employee turnover and, even worse, a brain-drain of the most talented and experienced workers. That’s a cost few corporations are prepared to pay for workplace stress.

Stress Management Strategies

Workplace stress isn’t new. As far back as the 1950s Canadian researcher Hans Selye began to study the effects of stress on human physiology and psychology. His work led to a broad expansion of stress research.

In the 1970s experts began to suggest there was an epidemic of stress plaguing many organizations. We started to hear terms such as “burnout” and “stress management.” Many organizations implemented programs to deal with workplace stress, including exercise, diet and nutrition and employee wellness programs, sound therapy, meditation and hypnosis, cognitive therapy, time management, conflict resolution and transactional analysis. Many of these are still popular.

There are many factors and circumstances that can generate high levels of stress, and we can’t eliminate or minimize every external factor that may induce it, but we may be able to do more than simply help employees learn to cope.

To do so leaders must take into account how different individuals deal with stress. As in the earlier example, the employees in two different work cultures may define their jobs alternately as either “stressful” or “exhilarating.” The skill set required to manage stress depends on an individual’s perceptions, values and expectations. To put it simply, some people are naturally better at coping with stress than others.

For example, when NASA began selecting the seven men who were to fly the Mercury missions into space, it began with 500 applications from military test pilots. Of those, 110 were chosen as qualified but, after extensive testing, only 18 men possessed the “right stuff.” In other words, only slightly more than 3 percent of all applicants were deemed qualified to handle the stresses of space flight. While NASA may be an extreme example, it makes one wonder how many employees in any given company are naturally capable of dealing with workplace stress.

Ongoing studies by psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman seem to confirm we can build a resilient organization from the inside out. Seligman, often hailed as the father of positive psychology, has built upon 30 years of research by developing an approach that focuses on resilience, discussed in “Building Resilience” in the April 2011 Harvard Business Review.

According to Seligman, optimism determines how humans bounce back from stress. Individuals who see setbacks as temporary, local and changeable are less inclined to give up when faced with stress.

Seligman recently helped develop the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness initiative, a $145 million program consisting of a psychological fitness test, self-improvement courses post-test and master resilience training for drill sergeants. Although focused on the unique needs and problems of America’s soldiers, the program may provide a model for learning design and implementation in corporate environments.

Creating a Resilient Organization

Learning leaders can strengthen companies by teaching resilience skills at the individual level and creating a culture of resilience. At the individual level, stress management programs, weight-loss and nutrition education and smoking cessation programs are still relevant. Individual resilience-building can take place via classroom learning, e-learning, communities of practice discussions, individual and team executive coaching and team interventions.

To strengthen employees’ ability to embrace stress and “turn lemons into lemonade,” learning leaders also should consider providing creative problem-solving techniques including brainstorming, critical analysis and critical thinking models, processes that use right and left brain thinking when devising new initiatives or solving organizational problems, and strategic planning and visionary leadership development. Strategic planning processes that solicit input from all employee levels across various business units and departments help employees understand the big picture and be proactive in achieving long-term goals. Visioning starts at the top and is cascaded down in the organization so every leader is able to articulate his or her personal vision for a department and for the legacy he or she wishes to leave.

Instilling resilience into an organization is another matter. Engineering an organization-wide culture shift isn’t easy, but there are actions organizations can take to create a resilient climate. For example, include resiliency goals in the organization’s score card, hold leaders accountable for achieving resiliency metrics, and provide learning resources for business unit leaders to apply in their areas. Other solutions could include the following:

Provide employees with a sense of control: When people can access programs and resources, they can control their circumstances, face the unknown with less trepidation and uncertainty, and feel more comfortable taking risks. Employers should make sure employees have the tools, information and support they need to be successful. For example, provide communities of practice for continuous learning with assigned sponsors, guidelines and resources for employees to discuss issues and define project work streams to tackle process improvements in the work environment.

Model positive viewpoints: Optimists have proven to be more resilient and able to bounce back more easily from adversity. Rather than ignore or minimize tough circumstances and setbacks, leaders must face reality squarely and move ahead with hope and confidence. They have to focus on the opportunities that can arise from challenging circumstances and help their employees to visualize themselves succeeding in those same circumstances. Organizational leaders also can maintain positive viewpoints by acknowledging accomplishments and celebrating incremental milestones as well as goals achieved. It all starts with leaders who are open, communicative, inspiring and encouraging, especially during tough times.

Provide clear direction: People with a sense of direction more readily deal with stress-filled scenarios because they have a keen sense of what they are trying to accomplish and why it’s important. Having a sense of purpose cuts through confusion and distractions. An organization’s vision and mission statements add meaning to employees’ sense of resilience, so these directions need to be clearly expressed and frequently reinforced. Leaders need to make sure employees understand and fully support the corporate vision.

Promote healthy habits: Traditional approaches to stress management include programs on healthy diet, exercise, relaxation and balance because employees who aren’t physically up to the challenge are physically unprepared for stress as well. Leaders can begin by modeling healthy behavior.

Stress, the New Norm

There’s a certain irony when we think back to the dawn of stress management initiatives in the 1970s. What caused workers so much stress in those simpler, low-tech times?

Regardless, we know now as we knew then that stress is a permanent condition of the modern world. Learning leaders can continue to promote learning and development programs to help leaders deal with stressors, while building organizational processes and resources to create more resilient cultures that enhance employee productivity and well-being, and enable employees to respond to stress enthusiastically and actually thrive on overcoming challenges.

Jan Ferri-Reed is president of KEYGroup and co-author of Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies Are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation and What to Do About It. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.