Reducing Employee Stress
Based on a critical review of theory and research, what advice would you give managers on reducing employee stress?
Stress is a major issue for modern businesses and managers in the contemporary working environment. Not only do stress-related illnesses cost organisations in terms of lost working hours and productivity, but higher stress levels have also been associated with lower satisfaction levels, poorer quality service delivery, and higher levels of turnover (George and Zakkariya, 2015). This essay will thus look to critically review theory and research into the various options and approaches that can be used to manage employee stress and ensure it does not reach an excessive level, which could harm organisational performance and outcomes.
One of the main themes in the literature is the important role that an employee’s immediate managers, particularly line managers, can play in managing stress. According to Donaldson-Feilder et al. (2008), as line managers are responsible for organising employees and directly supervising their work, they are ideally positioned to address their psychological needs and manage work-related stress. This indicates that line managers need to ensure they have developed and can apply the necessary skills to manage employee stress to maintain morale and performance. At the same time, research indicates that senior managers need to focus on empowering line managers and giving them the necessary support and delegated authority to manage stress among their teams to help employees “manage their stress proactively through planning, prioritizing and delegating work” (Moyle, 2006, p. 48). This is an important issue, given recent findings that many line managers are themselves too stressed to help their employees deal with work-related stress (Crawford, 2013). This indicates that the management of stress is an issue that requires managerial involvement at all levels, as build-ups of excessive stress in any layer of an organisational hierarchy can trigger additional issues and performance problems.
In addition to the direct management of stress, it is also important to recognise the role of leadership styles in creating an organisational environment in which the causes of stress are minimised. As noted by Huczynksi and Buchanan (2010), many managers continue to follow traditional supervisory leadership theories, through which they look to encourage and reward good performance and reprimand employees who fail to perform. However, there is a risk of this type of leadership resulting in an overly autocratic approach to the management of employees. A research study by Castledine (2004) showed that this leadership style is associated with higher stress levels, leading to a lack of commitment and a risk of employee burnout. This thus indicates one of the primary paradoxes in the management of stress, namely that a degree of stress is required in the form of pressure to perform and penalties for failure if employees are to be motivated to work hard but above a certain level; this stress can become destructive. As such, one of the core options for managing stress without eliminating it is to use transformational and participative leadership styles, which will motivate employees to perform whilst providing them with support and motivation to avoid any issues of excess stress and preventing a long term accumulation of stress which can cause damage to employee outcomes (Northhouse, 2011).
In addition to the specific leadership style, it is also important to recognise the role of individual employee factors, both inside and outside the organisation, in influencing levels of stress and the negative impacts that can result. This is particularly important in light of recent developments like work, including flexible labour markets and the rise in knowledge work. According to Robbins et al. (2010), this has increased employee expectations around the rights and obligations of organisations and employees and a demand for organisations to recognise these rights. This can cause conflict between organisational and employee priorities, particularly in work-life balance and the extent to which demands placed on employees by organisations are fair and reasonable (Sturges and Guest, 2004). This is important in the context of employee stress, given that research has shown that a positive work-life balance is one of the major factors in preventing the build-up of tension and helping support healthier lifestyles for employees (Gregory and Milner, 2009). Ensuring a positive work-life balance, which does not place excessive demands on employees, is thus also key to managing employee stress levels.
The role of work-life balance in controlling organisational stress is also linked to the general literature on the growing importance of the psychological contract. Evidence from the literature indicates that forming a strong psychological contract between an employee and their manager and organisation can help boost motivation levels and thus drive higher performance levels (Watson, 2001). However, the psychological contract is also based on a strong recognition of the organisation’s role in supporting employees with specific issues or circumstances to make them feel more valued (Abendroth et al., 2012). A failure to manage the psychological contract can result in perceptions by employees that the organisation and its managers have broken the agreement, which can increase levels of stress and the negative impacts of tension on organisational outcomes (Houston et al., 2006). This indicates that managers must be attuned to the implied promises in the psychological contracts they have developed with their employees and honour these promises or risk high levels of employee stress and associated dissatisfaction.
The ability of managers to identify and address these issues is also linked strongly to the level of managerial understanding of stress as an emotional issue. This, in turn, leads to the argument that managers who can deal better with stress and other emotional issues will be better at controlling them and reducing any associated negative impacts, causing Goleman et al. (2002) to argue that emotional intelligence is now a vital competence for modern leaders. This argument is supported by Hughes et al. (2005), who use theory to discuss that emotional intelligence will help leaders improve their level of understanding of the dynamic behaviours and needs of employees and thus allow them to respond to these issues in a supportive manner, building a more genuine relationship. This will thus improve the ability of managers to understand and address the causes of stress, helping to pre-empt the emergence of stress in the workplace. Managers can, therefore, develop their emotional intelligence to improve their stress management.
Unfortunately, whilst emotional intelligence is one of the areas of management competence seen as among the most prominent in managing stress, it is also one of the most controversial. On the one hand, Sadri (2012, p. 535) states that “the components of emotional intelligence integrate with contemporary leadership development practices”, which supports the argument that emotional intelligence is key to developing effective leadership, which can help manage stress. However, research and discussions by Antonakis et al. (2009) and Lindebaum (2009) indicate that whilst there are strong theoretical arguments for emotional intelligence, there is very limited statistical evidence to support these arguments. In particular, Lindebaum (2009) argues that the value of emotional intelligence is generally supported through the use of hyperbolic claims around the importance of this competence in managing stress and achieving positive employee outcomes. However, the empirical support for these arguments is very limited. As such, whilst addressing emotional issues and their potential negative impacts is widely supported in the literature as a method of managing employee stress, the existence of a single competence or capability that can ensure effective management of these complex issues is less clear.
In conclusion, the literature indicates that several methods, techniques and approaches can be used to ensure effective stress management. These include ensuring that line managers are empowered and trained in dealing with stress and are themselves protected from stress, and also ensuring that leadership styles are participative and transformational to ensure pressure to perform does not turn into high-stress levels. In addition, the organisation and its managers must support positive individual-level factors such as work-life balance and a psychological contract that establishes clear expectations and meets them. There is also a strong argument that leaders and managers must develop higher levels of emotional intelligence to understand employee and dynamic requirements and thus develop appropriate responses to address these needs and the stress they may cause. However, this argument is not well supported in the empirical literature, which indicates that the development of emotional intelligence may not be possible or feasible. Instead, managers should respond to each situation individually and manage the stress, which can result in keeping overall stress levels in their organisation at an acceptable level.
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