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We all experience a certain amount of stress, whether we live in the countryside
, in Addis Abeba, in Ethiopia or elsewhere in the world. Although the factors that cause stress vary, there are many uncertainties that people face, like for example of food security, employment, violence, the environment, competition, security and the costs of living. At work, people are expected to adjust to competitive pressures, organizational restructuring, new technologies and the ever present push for improved quality and productivity. Anybody reading this article will have experienced some of these pressures during their career at some point.
Change of any sort in organizations is often accompanied by increased stress for the people involved. Managers must thus be able to effectively deal with stress in their organization. Consider the following example from my own experience. A number of years ago, the organization I worked for had hired a woman to head a department in the line of her competencies. Not long after, there was a strategic re-direction and she was given the opportunity – a nice way of saying that she was expected to – continue to head another department outside of her professional expertise and perhaps even her interest. She tried hard, struggled and found it difficult to manage this department well. I tried hard to encourage and coach her but the gap was too big to bridge. One day I called her into my office and I suggested that it may be better to let her go. While I expected her to protest she instead sighed with relief and replied: “Perhaps I can now sleep again tonight.” She must have experienced quite some stress over a period of perhaps months. But what exactly is stress?
Stress is a state of tension experienced by individuals facing extraordinary demands, constraints or opportunities. In the above example the organization’s demands from the department head were just too much and in fact it was not fair to expect her to do well managing a department outside of her experience.
All workers face stress to a certain extend and thus every manager must understand stress and how it operates in the workplace.
Interesting enough, stress does not always act as a negative influence on our lives. There are actually two faces to stress, one constructive and one destructive. Constructive stress acts in a positive way for the individual or organization. In fact moderate stress can increase effort, stimulate creativity and encourage diligence in one’s work. This kind of stress causes students to study hard for exams, pay attention in class and complete assignments on time. The same positive results of stress can be found in the workplace. Managers should therefore seek the positive performance edge offered by constructive stress. And they must at the same time be concerned about the potential for stress to impact workers and their performance negatively. One of the most difficult tasks here is to find the optimum stress points.
Destructive stress or distress is dysfunctional for the individual and the organization. Excessive high levels of stress can overload and break down a person’s physical and mental systems. Performance may suffer and workers experience illness brought on by very intense stress and they may react by being absent from work, making mistakes, causing accidents, dissatisfaction, reduced performance or even unethical behaviour, like cheating. Did you ever get a receipt showing services that you never received? If you did, you probably assumed that the company was trying to get some extra money out of you. Instead it may have been a fabrication of workers in order to make their performance look good to management on paper. Think again.
Stressors are things that cause stress and can be classified into three categories: work factors, non-work factors and personal factors.
Work factors to stress include the following: unrealistic task demands, role ambiguities (the worker is not clear as to what is expected from him/her), role conflicts (the worker is expected to do different things at the same time), interpersonal conflicts, career development (too fast or too slow), and physical aspects (noise, overcrowding, temperature, air pollution etc.).
Non-work factors causing stress that can spill over into performance include family issues (perhaps somebody died or on a happier note, a new child is born), economic difficulties (costs of living, the school fees, that have to be paid) and personal affairs (a separation or divorce for example). Since it is often difficult to completely separate work and private life, stress of this sort can indeed affect the way people feel and behave at work and at home.
Finally, there are personal factors causing stress such as individual needs, capabilities and personality. People react to stress differently and stress can reach a destructive state more quickly for example by highly emotional people or by those with a low self-esteem. Also, people who experience a good fit between their job requirements and their skills have a higher level of tolerance for stress than those who feel less competent as a result of a person-job mismatch.
Next week, we will discuss how to manage stress effectively.