To Sustain Employee Engagement, You Must Manage Workplace Stress

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Jun 10, 2015

It’s Monday morning and time to make your to-do list for the day.

Following time management advice you found on the Internet, you aim to fit your list on a single sticky note. As you review your slate of projects, you find that three-by-three piece of paper gives you more than ample space. You actually have only two items to write down: the first is “do more.” The second is “with less.”

You came to work engaged, but you feel your motivation draining away. And so another stressful week begins.

Engagement and stress

Executive leaders and managers work hard to build employee engagement by creating trust, connecting individual and company goals, supporting balance between work and home life and involving people in decisions that affect them.

Too often, however, leaders at all levels overlook the workplace stressors that undermine engagement and make it difficult for people to continue to work effectively.

Global research conducted by Towers Watson in 2014 identified the principal sources of workplace stress:

  • Excessive workload, compounded by inadequate staffing;
  • Unclear job expectations;
  • Poor rewards for effort contributed; and,
  • Overwhelming productivity demands.

Among people who report high stress, 51 percent are disengaged from their work, while only 9 percent say they are engaged. The numbers are a mirror image for employees who report low stress – 57 percent are highly engaged, and only 8 percent put themselves in the disengaged group.

To sustain engagement, organizations must not only create the conditions that inspire employees to work hard and care about their companies, but also counteract the sources of stress, which undermine and ultimately destroy engagement.

Enablement and energy

Sustaining engagement through periods of stress calls for two factors: enablement and energy.

Enablement refers to the provision of instrumental resources (well-functioning equipment, necessary supplies, effective work processes) as well as the removal of obstacles to effective contribution. In a survey of workplace stress in U.S. companies, we found that managers in the lowest-stress workplaces got high scores for removing obstacles that prevent employees from doing their jobs well.

Lack of information, slow decision-making, unclear guidance, political infighting – all are workplace speed bumps that increase stress and undermine engagement. Good managers minimize these kinds of impediments.

Enablement also involves giving employees the ability to craft roles with contours that snugly fit each individual’s abilities and aspirations and simultaneously meet the organization’s goals. Here are examples of actions managers can take to give people control over important dimensions of their work:

  • Provide an opportunity to innovate – Encouraging people to improve processes and products.
  • Change the scope of assignments – Letting employees take on additional interesting tasks or drop superfluous ones.
  • Broaden a personal network – Helping people to reach out to different functions to get fresh perspectives.
  • Flex the timing of the job – Allowing flexible work day start and finish times.
  • Flex the location of the job – Letting work be done in the most convenient locations.

Giving competent people control over how, when and where works gets done reduces stress and paves the way for focused, effective contribution.

Emotional support lowers workplace stress

Energy reflects the healthfulness of the work environment. It fuels engagement the way gasoline (or electricity) fuels your Toyota (or your Tesla). Engagement-bolstering energy comes largely from social and emotional support, which can directly counteract workplace stressors.

According to data from the American Psychological Association, people who say they receive emotional support put their overall stress levels at 4.8 on a 1 – 10 scale. In comparison, people who say they lack emotional sustenance gave themselves a 6.2 rating.

Within the workplace, social support includes such factors as co-worker camaraderie and teamwork. Managers provide social support by being friendly, respectful and available to provide help and encouragement.

The stress survey turned up a surprising finding: The two items receiving the highest scores in energy-rich workplaces (“My manager treats me with respect” and “My manager is friendly and gets along well with others”) revealed just how important personal connections are. Humans are social beings – social contact brings a sense of personal value that protects against the effects of stressors.

The pluses of a high-energy work environment

While not devoid of stress, a high-energy workplace provides an environment in which engagement-sapping forms of stress diminish and energizing challenges increase. Consider, for example, how a person would experience work that is:

  • Consistent with individual abilities or out of alignment, either too easy or too far out of reach;
  • Reasonable in the time allotted or required impossibly quickly;
  • Associated with an important, potentially gratifying outcome or a routine, trivial one;
  • Supportive of personal and career growth or the same old experience over and over again.

The last point is especially important. When managers don’t help people see how their work puts them on a path to a better job or a higher position, energy diminishes (“Why should I keep trying if my effort isn’t getting me anywhere?”) and stress increases (“I guess I’ll just have to try harder – but I don’t see how I can.”)

As a population, managers fall short in meeting employee expectations on this factor. Even in high-energy workplaces, our survey said, only half of employees agree that they and their managers had useful career development discussions during the prior year.

Putting the three E’s together

An organization that mindfully combines high employee engagement with both enablement and energy opens the door to a significant performance lift. Conversely, in a world where people are dispersed, sometimes isolated, working longer hours with fewer resources, the resulting stress can deflate engagement, erode enablement and deplete energy.

The reality is that only 40 percent of employees globally say they are engaged, enabled and energized. At the same time, more than 30 percent say they experience significant stress at work.

It’s time for executives to see the interaction between stress and engagement and take action to address this threat to the vitality that powers their businesses.

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