Everyone Talks about Job Stress, but No One Does Anything About It

Janice Linden-Reed
Oct 23, 2019 · 15 min read

Yes, I’m looking at you, mindful workplaces

photo by Ramille Soares on Unsplash

When I work with students learning the Kanban Method, I ask them to list their “sources of dissatisfaction” at the start of the class.

The answers are eerily similar regardless of their organization’s size, industry, global location, or level of sophistication: too much work, late delivery, lack of predictability, lack of clarity about the incoming work, delays in the system.

All of it relates to workload.

Related to this, they express shame, anger, and frustration. They talk about the pressure they are under and the unhappiness of managers, executives, and customers. They are looking for help which is, of course, why they are taking a Kanban class.

They are stressed.

We know job stress is real. It feels like we have always known it.

Actually, it took decades for us to finally listen to researchers and realize that occupational stress was something to take seriously. We learned it was responsible for a decline in worker health and productivity. Stats were reported on injuries, accidents, errors, absenteeism, and suicides, all attributed to stress on the job. Financial impact was calculated.

That is when organizations started policies and entire programs to deal with worker wellness. These programs covered physical and mental health including stress management.

THE NIOSH MODEL

Official “worker well-being” guidelines were published, including the “STRESS…at Work” report by the National Institute of Organizational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Center for Disease Control within the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The basic NIOSH Model of Job Stress contained 2 declarations:

1. Stressful working conditions (job stressors) can have a direct influence on worker safety and health

2. Individual and other situational factors can intervene to strengthen or weaken this influence

NIOSH identified 2 elements that may create risk of worker injury or illness including stress

The concept is that there are stressful working conditions such as long hours or a heavy workload — but these stressors affect different workers in different ways. Some workers might react more strongly to a workplace stressor if they are also affected by health issues, family issues, or chronic anxiety. Other workers may react more casually to the same stressor. Perhaps the latter could be considered more resilient with better coping skills.

The NIOSH report also mentioned “a relaxed and positive outlook” as a factor “that might reduce the effects of stressful working conditions.” Individuals who have trouble with anger management are more likely to react to work-related stressors with anger.

While NIOSH clearly stated that both aspects of the model needed to be addressed, employers latched onto the concept that individuals could be more or less vulnerable to stress. Programs to improve workplace stress levels focused entirely on making workers better able to cope. The goal became to build a stress-proof workforce. Meanwhile, the underlying work-related stressors would continue.

NIOSH recommended specific organizational changes to prevent job stress.

Primary recommendations to avoid job stress from the “STRESS…at Work” report

In 2008, NIOSH released a “Working with Stress” video with an appeal to employers, “Because stress management programs are generally inexpensive and easy to implement, they continue to receive wide corporate support. While such programs are indeed beneficial, at least in the short term, they don’t address the root causes of stress because they focus on the worker, not the environment…The most direct way to improve stress is to improve working conditions.”

With the massive amount of money spent on workplace wellness programs, where was the attention to fixing communication and management issues in organizations?

The World Health Organization (WHO) also weighed in on job stress. In the report “Mental Health in the Workplace”, the WHO listed, “poor communication and management practices” as one of the common risks to mental health in the workplace. With the massive amount of money spent on workplace wellness programs, where was the attention to fixing communication and management issues in organizations?

GASLIGHTING ON AN ENTERPRISE SCALE

Gaslighting is a psychological term that refers to an individual with a valid and real complaint being told that the problem is all in their head, that others don’t have a problem with the (alleged) issue, and that if they would just work on themselves, everything would be better. If their workplace situation causes feelings of anxiety or anger, they are told they should work on resolving those feelings.

For decades, organizations have built on this idea that the focus of workplace wellness, including stress management, should be on “fixing” the worker rather than on addressing root causes. The suggestion to workers is clear: their perception is the problem.

While every study on workplace stress calls out organizational challenges such as workload as key stressors, organizations continue to exclude root cause resolution from wellness initiatives. When they do have a change initiative to resolve such issues, it is motivated by desire for improved performance, predictability, and profitability. Improving worker well-being is low on the list of benefits, if it is mentioned at all.

Articles about addressing workplace stress offer lots of suggestions, all of which are aimed at having workers change their own attitudes or perspectives. Published advice to workers includes gardening; bringing photos, flowers or plants to the office; hanging motivational posters; laughing; crying (!); cleaning; and changes to nutrition and exercise. Anger management and “positivity” is encouraged.

Meaningful quotes, perhaps in the form of inspirational and amusing posters can help to induce feelings of positivity and support through difficult times.” — Motivational posters from Workplace Well-Being

CORPORATE MINDFULNESS

Perhaps no worker wellness trend has gained as much traction as mindfulness. Mindfulness, as it is taught in these corporate programs, is a secular practice derived from Buddhism. It has 3 primary rules:

  • Pay attention in a deliberate way
  • Pay attention to what is happening NOW
  • Observe without judgement

This attention to the present moment is intended to improve focus and stress management in the individual practicing it.

Mindful workplace programs teach workers to meditate, go for walks, pause while eating, and listen actively. There are books, apps, classes, and conferences on the specific topic of “the mindful workplace”. Staff positions overseeing these programs have titles such as Director of Compassion or Superintendent of Well-Being.

McMindfulness book by Ronald Purser

Ronald Purser is a professor of management at San Francisco State University, an ordained Buddhist teacher, and author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. He has raised questions about the intent and validity of mindfulness programs.

“Corporate mindfulness programs promise to make employees calmer, more focused and resilient,” says Purser. “They’re a trendy form of corporate virtue signalling — a boon to employers that purport to care for the well-being of employees but whose real aims are to boost productivity and reduce healthcare costs — while absolving companies from addressing the systemic causes of workplace stress.”

Purser encourages workers to become organized and take political action in solidarity for organizational change.

EXPANDING THE SCOPE OF WORKER WELLNESS

Obviously, there is some value in teaching better management of stress, time, health, nutrition, and finances. In a well-rounded wellness program, we would not want to stop doing those things. But to address the whole range of stressors, including some of the worst ones, we need to improve the management of work.

You may be asking, “With all these guidelines asking employers to improve the management of work, did they suggest how that could be done?” Yes! Actually, they did.

The NIOSH report and others recommend a process involving a steering committee, surveys, focus groups, a prioritization system, full change management, and post-initiative measurement. Only a few improvement initiatives were expected to survive the process, and these would take quite a while. This laborious and limited process is not ideal for fast-changing, competitive business environments.

Guidance from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Management Standards (the 6 areas of work design HSE has identified as “the primary sources of stress at work”) includes encouragement to, “set realistic deadlines” and “learn to say no to work if your team is already at full capacity”. While the intent is good — to resolve management issues for the sake of worker well-being — this type of guidance is of limited value. What is needed is a realistic and collaborative system of work that can respond quickly to change.

If we were to pursue organizational changes for the well-being of workers, where would we start?

We could start with the managers

Training in how to relax and focus can be applied to how work is managed. Managers who can ration their energy, reduce stress, and manage their time such that they are not in a panicked state, are more successful at delivering work.

However, personal improvement skills are not enough. These “Purposeful Managers” also need a strong sense of strategic vision and a culture that grants them authority and autonomy in their role.

“Trying to prevent managers from losing energy or focus (or both) is an ambitious proposition,” states Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal in the Harvard Business Review. “It involves paying far more attention to how individual managers perceive the broad meaning of their work, what challenges they face, and the degree of autonomy they enjoy. It can’t be done by pulling small-scale HR levers; it can only happen with vision, oversight, and commitment from the top.”

To make wellness training count, be prepared to re-examine culture and control in your organization.

We could start with the workload

Burnout has become a synonym for psychosomatic, psychological symptoms and social consequences of a long-lasting workload exceeding an individual’s capacity (Hillert, 2008)

This survey showed 46% of stress came from workload-related pressures

Workload is an ever-present stressor. A heavy workload means more demand (work requests) than workers can support. Too little demand can also be stressful.

A heavy workload in combination with lack of decision authority (or skill discretion), called the Demands-Control Model, is especially stressful for workers.

Workload pattern is also an issue when work is frequently interrupted, compromising capacity, or when the level of demand or capacity fluctuates frequently and unexpectedly.

Issues with workload can lead to other stressors such as long working hours, quality issues, re-work, and missed deadlines, compounding the problem.

Workers reporting high levels of stress and stress-related illnesses were 4 1/2 times more likely to report problems with “working to deadlines” and “having too much work” than the general working population. (Jones et al, 1998)

Knowledge work and service work have particularly troublesome workloads. Marketing, sales, HR, finance, IT, customer support…all have high-variation, low visibility, fast changing workloads.

A SYSTEMIC SOLUTION FOR SYSTEMIC STRESS

To get ahead of stress-inducing conditions, we need to build in mechanisms for business agility. That means a way to change direction and focus quickly as business needs change.

A detailed Kanban system, which can be overlaid on current processes, would be the best way to manage a dynamic workload. It models and monitors the flow of work, stabilizing the system. Even if you can’t or don’t want to set up a complete Kanban system, you can still improve workload stress with a basic system of demand (and capacity) management.

Demand management on a systems-level lets you continually manage the workload. Policy “levers” can quickly and easily be adjusted as business conditions change.

Have a new, important customer? Entering the summer season when a lot of workers take vacation? Adding new team members? Dealing with a regulatory deadline? By tweaking the levers on your workload system, you have the agility to accommodate these shifts.

Rather than getting overwhelmed, shape the demand (and the capacity) so that it is managed appropriately and reasonably.

The first step in resolving a troublesome workload is to start thinking of your work as a system.

Remember the principles of mindfulness? These principles can be applied to the work directly. They can help you see the work in a different light.

Pay attention in a deliberate way — Step back and think of your work as a system with patterns of demand and capacity.

Pay attention to what is happening NOW — Work with the current workload conditions, not ideal conditions, past or future conditions, or a standard model.

Observe without judgement — Instead of focusing on the workers (performance and utilization), notice how the work flows through the system

Demand management requires taking an honest look, without emotional bias, at the workload. Rather than getting overwhelmed, shape the demand (and the capacity) so that it is managed appropriately and reasonably. The result is greater delivery of important work with less stress.

SHAPING DEMAND AND CAPACITY TO EASE THE WORKLOAD

Demand shaping is the concept of manipulating certain “levers” (such as price, inventory, availability, etc) to selectively encourage greater or lesser levels of demand and thus better match demand with available capacity.

If you owned a bar and you wanted to get more customers for the late afternoon lull, you could offer a special discounted menu and call it Happy Hour. Voila! Your bartenders are now consistently busy.

Demand shaping! (photo by Harps Joseph on Unsplash)

In a knowledge work or service work setting, what are the elements that you can adjust, as circumstances require, to free up some capacity or handle a heavier workload?

Instead of price and inventory, you can tweak policies for the way you handle the work. You can have a set of policies for each category of work you handle (categorized by type, size, client, etc).*

Here are some levers to adjust as the workload changes:

Capacity Allocation — Should your team spend 30% of their time and effort on the new client’s integration work right now? 50%? 5%? Would that percentage change next month?

Remember to reserve some capacity for emergency requests, or allocate capacity to a low-priority category that can be bumped if something urgent comes up.

Service Level Agreements — Last month you committed to deliver support tickets in 2 days maximum. Circumstances this month might require that to change to a 4-day SLA. When business needs change, commitments may need to change too.

Decision Authority — Can we shortcut the review and approval sequence right now? Can we reduce planning meetings? Can we let the team leader make the detailed decisions this month? Changing the decision authority can save time and relieve stress.

Communication Boundaries — For each type of work, what information needs to be gathered, and how often, for initial and ongoing communication? If we are short-staffed or training new employees, can we defer that big documentation project temporarily? Can you gather fast feedback but not spend too much time in meetings?

Don’t pretend that you will have normal capacity levels if you won’t. Adjusting these levers can give you the ability to complete important work, and defer less important requests.

If a service is important but your team is out for training half the month, how does that affect the policies for handling the work? Don’t pretend that you will have normal capacity levels if you won’t. Adjusting these levers can give you the ability to complete important work, and defer less important requests.

photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash

For a recurring pattern such as a holiday season scenario (workers on vacation, temp workers in place, heavy workload), you can have a demand profile prepared in advance, ready to activate when Tis The Season.

Being explicit about policies brings visibility to where the effort is going and what the priorities are. This communicates information about the workload and makes quick, independent decisions easier.

Just the act of categorizing work and assigning policies for how work is handled will result in a more manageable workload. Just the awareness of the work as a system will help. Workload stress may not be completely resolved, but will be improved and can improve more over time.

*A set of policies applied to a category of work is also called a “class of service”. Is the work in economy class or first class right now? How are these treated differently?

SO YOU THINK YOUR WORKLOAD IS TOO DIFFICULT

Do you think demand management won’t work for you because your situation is too challenging? Here’s an example of someone who faced a situation that seemed impossible.

Marcus Hammarberg is a management coach and a worker for the Salvation Army. He was advising a hospital in Indonesia that needed help. At one point, the roof fell in. It was an active hospital that had no roof, extensive monsoon storm damage, no operating permit, and was operating at a financial loss — to name a few of the problems.

Hospital damage cleanup efforts in Bungsu, Indonesia (courtesy Marcus Hammarberg)

The General Manager, Ibu Elsye, who was in charge of facility-related tasks, was on the verge of a breakdown. She was constantly and randomly given new tasks and struggled to complete them. The management team micro-managed facility decisions. She was not trusted within the organization because her department seemed ineffective. She was stressed and her team was stressed. Even before the roof fell in, she was overwhelmed with a chaotic workload.

By applying Kanban principles, Marcus was able to sort out this seemingly hopeless situation.

Mindful approach. They started with their current situation. They observed the reality of the situation in a non-emotional way. They deliberately avoided blame and personal attacks. They looked at the output and the needs of the hospital, seeing the work as a system.

Capacity Allocation. They identified ways to better use available rooms. They focused restoration efforts on limited areas. They helped the General Manager to better allocate her daily schedule, including slack time. The team was restricted to 3 work items in process at a time. There was a new focus on finishing.

Decision Authority. The General Manager was given sole authority to make detailed decisions on the work. She also would choose which tickets her team would work on. Stakeholders were not allowed to push tickets directly to her team anymore.

Communication Boundaries. Meetings were re-examined and restrictions were set on topics that could be included. The General Manager had daily meetings with specific goals. They defined the critical information to be gathered each day.

General Manager of the Bungsu hospital on the right (in black) reporting on work items finished in 2 weeks under the new system. Previously, the other meeting attendees did not trust her to be effective.

The completion of work items went from 6 items complete in a typical 2-week period to 46 items complete in 2 weeks under the new Kanban management changes. Trust and transparency greatly improved. It became clear that the General Manager was effective when given the information and authority that she needed.

Marcus Hammarberg has documented this very moving story in the book, Salvation: The Bungsu Story: How Lean and Kanban saved a small hospital in Indonesia Twice. And can help you reshape work in your company.

ONWARD TO A BRIGHTER, LESS STRESSFUL FUTURE

“Stress management, as currently defined, has a limited role in reducing organizational stress because no effort is made to remove or reduce sources of stress at work. Focusing on the individual as the prime target for organizational intervention creates a dilemma of ‘blaming the victim.’ A more appropriate application of stress management would be as a complement to job redesign or organizational change interventions.” — Stress Management in Work Settings NIOSH, 1987

Why isn’t the management of work considered a worker wellness issue? A culture of blame with a lack of trust is common, and that is directly opposed to a solution. When management thinks that workers are incompetent and workers think that management or customers are clueless, we are at an impasse. It takes a culture of collaboration to resolve problems related to workload and autonomy.

There are also a lot of management frameworks available and organizations don’t know which to pursue. They have been victimized by expensive change initiatives that are not context-specific. Workers get fed up with disruptive managed change that eventually gets thrown out. Then they get so process-wary that they are not open to further attempts at improvement.

It may be up to the workers to demand that workload and other stressors be resolved in order to make their work situation more bearable. If the “solutions” don’t help (either wellness program solutions or attempts at improving the management of work), workers should speak up about it. And organizations should listen.

I like the Kanban Method because it is compatible with existing project management processes and it focuses on the unique needs of each organization. It is a model of the current system and its evolutionary change is run by the workers.

Improvements in worker stress levels following Kanban initiatives, per internal surveys, have been reported at companies like Capital One, Vistaprint, and many others.

Want to talk about Kanban or the worker wellness dilemma? Please contact me.

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

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Janice Linden-Reed

Written by

Globe trotting (Seattle-based) spa rat. Optimizing work usually via Kanban Method. Current activities @ readyoption.com. Available for Lean & Agile program mgmt

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Janice Linden-Reed

Written by

Globe trotting (Seattle-based) spa rat. Optimizing work usually via Kanban Method. Current activities @ readyoption.com. Available for Lean & Agile program mgmt

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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