There are many causes of workplace stress. Perhaps surprisingly, not all workplace stress is bad. As a leader, it’s your job to understand your team’s sources of stress. Failing to take the time to do so could result in low morale, burnout and poor employee retention.
Wait, some sources of workplace stress are good?
Yes, that’s right. Some sources of workplace stress are good for you and your team. Reasonable levels of stress caused by deadlines, competition or striving to achieve something can be beneficial. These sources of good stress are characterised by a number of factors.
Good sources of stress are for the short term
Short term goals or deadlines are beneficial because they induce a relatively brief period of motivation to achieve something. Prolonged stress caused by never-ending deadlines is not beneficial. Working late for a few nights to get the report delivered by Friday can be a positive experience, because there is an end in sight.
Good sources of stress originate from achievable tasks
If I’m a Nurse and you tell me to build a bridge, that’s not good stress. It’s bad workplace stress because it is daunting and is wildly out of my comfort zone.
However, if I’m a Nurse and you ask me to write an article on how to treat a cancer patient, that’s close enough to my skill-set that I might be motivated to achieve it. I might not be a writer, but I may know enough about the subject to make a good attempt at it.
Good sources of stress focus on the achievement of a worthy goal
Goals and deadlines can be positive experiences if they focus on the achievement of a worthy goal. If you are working hard to finish a major project, you may be stressed, but you are focused on achieving something important. It’s this focus and achievement that make it worth striving for.
On the other hand, if talking to Jerry from the Marketing team stresses you out because he’s rude and condescending, there is no worthy goal involved. Workplace stress that doesn’t involve achievement of a worthy objective is likely to be bad.
Understanding the bad sources of workplace stress
OK, we all know that many sources of workplace stress are bad for us. Let’s take a quick look at some of the characteristics of bad stress.
Bad workplace stress is long lasting
Bad stress factors are long lasting. Workplace stress factors that don’t go away take a physical and mental toll on people. In your team, long lasting stressors should be avoided wherever possible.
Prolonged sources of stress include issues with people in your organisation or team, micromanagement by leaders, or undue pressure applied which isn’t tied to a particular achievement or objective. Poor workplace design, toxic organisational culture and work environment issues can also be considered prolonged sources of stress. The list is almost endless!
You may notice that many of the stressors above overlap with other categories. This is expected, because any of the other stressors can also be long-lasting.
Bad workplace stress feels “stressful”
Bad sources of stress make people feel anxious, fearful, frustrated, nervous or uncomfortable. Positive stress factors can actually have a different effect.
Positive workplace stress factors are more likely to be associated with feelings such as motivation, excitement or enthusiasm, even if the task associated with the stress may appear daunting.
Bad sources of stress are more likely to result in your team taking extra sick days, losing motivation or walking out the door.
Bad sources of workplace stress are unproductive
The most important thing to know about the different stress factors is that bad stress is unproductive, while good stress can increase productivity and motivation.
Bad workplace stress prevents your team from working properly to a high standard. People who feel stressed, anxious or fearful will not be doing their best work.
On the other hand, good stress improves the capability of your team.
What are your team’s sources of workplace stress?
It’s worth sitting down and thinking about the stressors that commonly affect your team. Pleading ignorance or not attempting to understand your team’s stress factors is not a good excuse.
Write down all the sources of stress you can think of. Talk to your team and try to understand what stresses them out, and what motivates them. I’ve provided a list below of some examples of good and bad stress factors to use as a starting point.
Don’t forget to look at your own behaviour. As a leader, you are in a prime position to be the source of both good and bad stress!
Examples of good sources of workplace stress
- Short term deadlines
- Challenging goals
- Tasks that are slightly out of the comfort zone
- Tasks that require team members to learn new skills on the job
- Worth-while objectives
Examples of bad sources of workplace stress
- Nasty (toxic, rude, arrogant, malicious…choose your favourite) team members, leaders or colleagues
- Dysfunctional team behaviour or poor team communication
- Team members who don’t have the right skills to perform their role or team members that take a free ride, while others pick up the slack
- Constant pressure, not linked to achievable, worthwhile goals
- Environmental factors such as lack of flexible work arrangements or poor working conditions
- Unnecessarily low salaries.
Did you notice any patterns in your team stress factors? Are there too many bad stressors with an absence of good stress factors?
Remember that bad workplace stress can cause your team’s productivity to plummet. It is not possible to eliminate all causes of bad stress from an environment, but you should do your best to remove as many as possible, or reduce their impact.
Also recognise that adding good stress to a team with a lot of bad stressors will probably not help. For people to respond well to good stress, you need to create an environment where they don’t feel anxious, afraid or nervous.
Workplace stress is not just “part of the job”. It’s a part of the team environment that you create as a leader. Whilst some things may be out of your direct control, rest assured that there are plenty of actions you can take to improve the environment for both you and your team.