Dave Salisbury reviews the latest academic literature on workplace stress.
Recently, I was told that the workplace was the most significant factor in how stress impacted people’s lives. I disagreed. Although the conversation got me thinking.
I present the following as my perception of stress in the workplace.
Labelling stress as a significant factor in the modern workplace is disingenuous at best.
What is the purpose of the stress being experienced? Who is experiencing stress? How resilient is the person?
These questions and more never appear in the research on stress in the workplace, but they are fundamental to understanding stress.
Training, experience, job satisfaction, home life quality and quantity, personal physical fitness, and so forth all play roles in stress (also referred to as anxiety) in the workplace, and to lump all of what is being experienced into a label such as “stress” deceives and destroys where health and growth might be occurring except for the label stress (Garcia-Izquierdo, de Pedro, Ríos-Risquez, & Sánchez, 2018; Moore, 2018; Sok, Blomme, & Tromp, 2014; Strutton & Tran, 2014; Vanhove, Herian, Perez, Harms, & Lester, 2016).
Garcia-Izquierdo et al. (2018) researched resilience among nurses and reported connections between emotional exhaustion and cynicism and nursing professionals experiencing burnout.
Yet resilience was found to have positive causal relationships to psychological health, emotional exhaustion, and cynicism. Hence, merely presuming all stress is harmful reflects an ingrained bias against stress, and the positive and healthy aspects of stress are never mentioned or researched honestly (Strutton & Tran, 2014; Vanhove, Herian, Perez, Harms, & Lester, 2016).
The more resilient a person chooses to be, the more potential they have to harness stressors from the environment and produce positive results
The more resilient a person chooses to be, the more potential they have to harness stressors from the environment and produce positive results; thus, Strutton and Tran (2014) maintain that stress can be a positive force for good.
The conclusions present a roadmap for businesses to follow. Leaving a question: if resilience can be learned and trained, if stress is good, and through learning resilience productivity has the potential to improve, why the focus on flexible working arrangements instead of productive tasks, e.g., employee training (Strutton & Tran, 2014; Dizaho, Salleh, & Abdullah, 2017)?
Dizaho et al. (2017) again lumped all workplace activity into the term stress. It doesn’t mention employees’ resilience, or differentiate between males and females, resilient employees and less resilient employees.
Dizaho et al. (2017) labels stress as bad and promotes flexibility in the workplace as an employer issue to manage through flexible schedules, job-sharing, part-time work, shift work, telecommuting, and encouraging a work/life balance arrangement.
The Positive Effects of Stress
While some employees might need these tools due to personal choice regarding the onboarding of resilience training, it seems to me that the academic community is cheating businesses through the disingenuous lumping of all anxiety from the workplace into stress and overlooking the positive effects of stress and the causal relationship with resilience.
This leads to several questions on this topic:
- Why is this a business organizational problem?
- Where is the individual employee held accountable and responsible for their own anxiety and personal training on resilience?
- Dizaho et al. (2017, p. 462) make it clear, concluding that the problem is “paramount,” and that the business organization is responsible. But why is the business organization responsible?
Another aspect to the flexible-work-environment discussion brought forth and detailed by Gloor, Li, and Puhl (2018) is the inequality of treatment between the sexes in receiving flexibility in the workplace.
Females are more likely and have a different experience obtaining flexibility in working arrangements, even when García-Izquierdo (2018) reflects that both male and female nurses can experience resilience, learn resilience, and all mammals can experience anxiety in some fashion or another.
Why are females treated differently by policies for flexibility in the workplace (Vanhove et al., 2016)? The same inequality is apparent between male and female disabled individuals as well.
Anxiety in the Workplace Is a Paradox
A paradox occurs when two seemingly opposing items are compared, and reality shows the articles under question are more related than different. Anxiety in the workplace is a paradox. Understanding this dichotomy while embracing the power and influence of resilience is part of the solution to leading an organization in fundamental change.
An essential characteristic and work circumstance that can positively affect change-induced anxiety (stress) in the workforce will be resilience
An essential characteristic and work circumstance that can positively affect change-induced anxiety (stress) in the workforce will be resilience (Garcia-Izquierdo et al., 2018; Moore, 2018; Sok et al., 2014; Strutton & Tran, 2014; Vanhove et al., 2016).
Strutton and Tran (2014) laid out three different plans worthy of modelling for turning non-productive anxiety into growing and motivating stress:
- Leveraging anxiety through pragmatic optimism.
- Leveraging anxiety through constructive impatience.
- Leveraging anxiety through confident humility.
Strutton and Tran (2014) discussed how to mitigate the risk of workplace violence during change by examining the positive influence of tension, claiming, “too little tension may promote contentment… too much tension may promote challenges that appear too large and increases anxiety (pp. 1098–1099). Gluschkoff, Elovainio, Hintsa, Pentti, Salo, Kivimäki, & Vahtera, (2017) emphasized that rampant anxiety can lead to violence.
Gluschkoff et al. (2017) related that how well an individual sleeps is an indicator of anxiety having a negative influence in the workplace; thus, employees need encouragement in improving how to sleep as a managerial tool for organizations experiencing fundamental change. Hence, a mitigatory force in workplace violence is how well an employee sleeps; but this leads back to a question of employee responsibility, not organizational change.
Vanhove et al. (2016) and Sok et al. (2014) possess the last word on organizations in fundamental change or organization-wide changes: the need to learn resilience.
Resilience is learned through workplace programmes that facilitate employees maintaining a healthy work/life balance
Resilience is learned through workplace programmes that facilitate employees maintaining a healthy work/life balance and understanding that work spillover is not always a bad thing for employees. Those employees with work spillover need monitoring. That is a leadership function at all times and seasons, not just during change initiatives.
Employers Need to Understand Workplace Anxiety
Employers and business leaders need to understand the individual nature of workplace anxiety. The leaders must not force a one-size-fits-most policy onto the employees. However, knowing the employees, and training employees, opens doors to evaluate employee actions towards stressors in the environment and potentially select new leaders, post-change.
Fascinating and related to stress in the workplace was how much of the literature rejects how beneficial stress can be. Research also appears to contradict how stress is a choice and how choosing resilience, training about resilience, and improving a person’s resilience are better actions for an employer to take than what is indicated by the lawyers, researchers, and NGOs (Garcia-Izquierdo et al., 2018; Gok et al., 2016; Moore, 2018; Sok et al., 2014; Solomon, 2003; Strutton & Tran, 2014; Vanhove et al., 2016; Zabawa, 2017).
Workplace stress is rarely, if ever, considered beneficial, but the research always wants to hold the employer responsible for reducing stress. Frankly, I was appalled that the employer would be given more power over the employee’s life (IRS.gov, 2018).
Leaving me with questions:
- If the employer is responsible for employee stress, what about the employee’s role in choosing healthier emotional responses (Solomon, 2003)?
- What about employee responsibility and accountability for their own health, mental, physical, and spiritual (Garcia-Izquierdo et al., 2018)?
Arnulf, Larsen, Martinsen, and Bong (2014) detailed how internal bias predicts results; thus, we can discount most stress-related research as nothing more than bias magnified and personal opinion presented as research; how the research questions are formed dictates the answer that will be arrived at when the study concludes.
Of all the topics I have learned and relearned, the need to question everything, ask more questions, and become ever more selective in the materials I cite has been confirmed.
Interestingly, the more I think I know, the more sure I become that I do not know anything; but I want to learn so much more.
Thanks to Dave Salisbury, an Operations and Customer Relations Specialist, for putting together this article.
For more insights on stress in the contact centre, read our following articles;
- Employee Well-Being: How to Reduce Contact Centre Stress
- A Guide to Improving Mental Health In the Contact Centre
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