The Stress of Change in the Workplace

Change will impact our lives in an infinite number of ways.  It will present enormous challenges and unprecedented opportunities. But, with it, will come inordinate stress.

Medical research tells us that the greatest stressor in our lives is the inability to change. Which may be why ours is an age of unprecedented strain, headaches and digestive problems – so much so that tension relief has become such a vibrant industry.

Stress is on a dramatic rise in today’s workplace  and costs Canadian companies billions of dollars annually. Recent data (2007) suggest that 54% of Canadian workers today are “highly stressed.” Not surprisingly, stress is the leading cause of workplace disability claims having doubled over the past 10 years.

In 2007 alone, it cost businesses in Canada $33 billion and the loss of over 35 million workdays. The major causes were all change related, ranging from work/life balance (22%) and increasing workload (28%) to job insecurity (14%).

A major finding in this research  is that today’s “managers neither understand not are sympathetic” to the increasing incidence of stress caused by the introduction of changes in the workplace. This misunderstanding can prove to be incredibly costly. It matters not whether disability due to stress is real or bogus. Firing people without a knowledge of their stressors is simply unwise. The damages being awarded by the courts for “injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect” are huge.

Three out of four North Americans complain about their stress level.  Two out of every three visits to the family doctor are stress related and the three top-selling drugs today are for ulcers, depression and hypertension. Psychologists say stress is partly to blame for a startling 300% increase in chronic depression during the past 50 years. Prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs have increased 80% over the past 5 years.

Although we cannot control events, stress is largely a function of how we choose to perceive the implications of change for our work, our relationships and our future destiny. Smart leaders know that the primary causes of workplace stress today are these:

  • The vacuum of information, especially about why decisions are being made the way they are;
  • Perceived unfairness in the treatment of workers;
  • A mismatch between the corporately espoused values and individual values;
  • Too many changes (too quickly) in the rules and routines of the workplace.

Stress-free work environments are productive and innovative  work environments. They arise when people have clear goals and directions, agreed-upon rules, unambiguous feedback and a sense of control over their work. Stress is also reduced when the challenge of work matches the employee’s capabilities, when there are few distractions, when bureaucracy is minimized and superiors don’t micromanage.  

Today’s smart leaders address their internal stress challenges by attending to some basics – by clearly defining discernable values-based behaviours, identifying the consequences of non-compliance with the rules and ensuring there is a transparent mechanism for dispute resolution.