Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 32 – Workplace stressors

What constitutes a stressful environment? This edition looks at some common workplace stressors and offers some advice you can take to minimise the effects in your working life.

In this issue we will look at:

• What are the major stressors in a working environment?
o Co-workers
o Intimidation & Harassment
o Time Pressure and Expectations
o Doing More With Less
o Work Life Balance
• Costly
• Occupational Health and Safety and an Employers Duty of Care
• A Thought to ponder

What are the major stressors in a working environment?
It is interesting. What one person considers to be a stressful environment, another person may not. The following are just some of the major stressors that can be found in a typical working environment:

Unless you work from home, or on your own, you will be spending a good portion of your working week with other people. On the face of it, working “in a team” or with others does mean that you can achieve more than you could hope to on your own, unfortunately this same situation can also create some of the biggest stressors in your working life. I’m sure you will have worked in an organisation where “office politics” was very much part of the atmosphere with back-biting, back-stabbing, white-anting, gossip and slander being part of the culture. Whilst some people may seem to thrive in this kind of environment, most people don’t. However, there are other types of person in your team that may cause you more stress than those engaged in office politics. These include:

The chatty neighbour
– This person may not be in geographic proximity to your work space, but when he feels like a chat, he’s always there. The topic isn’t so important as the Neighbour’s need for chatter and distraction. If the constant babbling doesn’t get to you, the time lost from your other responsibilities will.

The best friend – is completely and unconditionally open with all the details of his/her private life, and expects reciprocation. No matter if you’re uncomfortable hearing about the last fight with his ex or what her gynaecologist said, you’ll wind up on the receiving end of a lot of unwanted information. The friend generally subscribes to the rule of the office as family with intrusive questions being the behavioural norm. Occasionally this person will also be on good terms with the chatty neighbour (if they are not the one and the same person).

The clinger – like the “best friend”, views the office as one happy family. If you work together, the “clinger” sees no harm in – and even welcomes – spending weekends, evenings, and holidays together. He’s always suggesting going out after work, playing ball, or some other group activity. If you’re enthusiastic and willing to socialize with the office crowd, this type isn’t a problem. The problems arise when you want to maintain some distance from your work place and your work colleagues.

The harasser – these are people who make snide comments about your race, sexuality, sexual preferences, length of skirt, style of clothing, quality of work, time keeping, tells inappropriate jokes usually for the shock value, or is excessively “touchy”. This kind of behaviour is classed as “bullying” and should not be tolerated. If you are suffering this kind of stress in your workplace then it is extremely important that you follow your organisations procedures and report the matter to the people who are best able to deal with it (usually supervisors and Human Resources) Of course it becomes a little more interesting when the harasser is either the supervisor or is part of the HR team, in which case you may have to go to other sources. But no matter who the person is, you should not have to put up with this kind of behaviour. On the other hand if you are the person doing the “harassing” then perhaps you should think about modifying your behaviour.
The secret agent – everyone has encountered the office spy- he’s the boss’s eyes and ears. Luckily, this person generally blows his Secret Agent cover fairly rapidly. Unfortunately, there are always victims who must learn about this type the hard way. 

The thief – We are not talking about those people who steal personal items from the office place (although it is a sad fact of life that there are people who think that they can “borrow” items and/or take very personal items from their co-workers in almost every work place – if you suffer from this kind of stress, remember to lock cupboards, doors and work stations.). No, the thief is the kind of person who is always on the lookout for opinions and ideas that she can pass along to others as her own. Victims of office thieves have been astonished to hear their own ideas mentioned later by the boss as “brilliant suggestions” from the thief herself. Thievery can also occur with written projects – your ideas mysteriously appear in someone else’s report. If you have ever been “burned” by this kind of person, learn from the experience, and move on. Crying “she stole my idea” isn’t going to win you any points or respect. It is probably wise to limit your discussions with this person to topics such as the weather, hopefully they will soon get the hint. But if it continues, you would be wise to adopt a clear desk policy of anything of interest you are currently working on, so that they won’t be able to find anything worthy on your desk.

The slanderer – this kind of person is determined to achieve personal rewards by discrediting others. The slanderer’s well-timed gossip titbits about everything from your work habits to your personal life may be twisted versions of the truth or outright lies. This co-worker type may appear friendly and open, as she hopes you’ll reveal some useful material about yourself. Never get into a character assassination war or office feud, with this kind of person. Spreading negative rumours as revenge about the slanderer will only lower people’s estimation of you and your abilities (after all, no one will remember who started the attacks; you’ll both be viewed as petty and untrustworthy). Unfortunately the only way to get around this type of person is to prove the negative rumours wrong through your capabilities and performance.

And finally perhaps the worst colleague to have is “the incompetent” – According to researchers at Sweden’s Lindbergh University Medical Centre, says the biggest cause of heart attacks are the people you work with. During the study it became clear that 62% of the people who had suffered heart attacks, had them occur shortly after a run in with a co-worker, what was even more interesting was the fact that these co-workers had all done something “stupid”. It was noted that one man collapsed at his desk because the woman at the next cubicle kept asking him for correction fluid – for her computer monitor (and you just thought that was an urban myth didn’t you?), whilst another person had suffered a heart attack after her assistant shredded important company tax documents instead of photocopying them. 

In the same Swedish survey, it was also noted that most people felt the need to “cover” for their colleague’s mistakes. One woman spent a week re-building client records because a clerk had put them into the recycle bin on her computer and emptied it, thinking that the records would be recycled and used again. What is interesting is that if she had not “covered” for her colleague’s mistake and had mentioned the problem to someone they may have been able to reconstruct most if not all the data from back up tapes, saving time, effort and Valium. She may have been busy, she may have felt “obliged” to do the work, but the problem was not hers, so why did she feel that she had to be the one to fix it. You may be busy, but what are you busy doing? (Survey conducted by The Future Foundation “Getting the Edge in the New People Economy” as reported in High cost of poor performers; Human Resources 22 February 2005 p6)

Intimidation and Harassment:
As we have already mentioned in the previous section on co-workers, intimidation can take many forms and is not limited to any particular level of employee. In a survey of 775 workers conducted in 2000 by The University of North Carolina’s Business School found that 12% of these people had quit their jobs to avoid nasty people at work with a massive 45% of people considering following suit.  Of those questioned over half also said they lost time because they were worried about irate or rude people in their offices. (Employees behaving badly: Combating desk rage; pp12-13 – Human Resources Issue 66 5 October 2004). Whilst we live in a rich and multi-culturally diverse society in Australia, there will always be people who think they can get away with “bullying” those around them. As with all things it is important to make sure that the correct people are aware of the situation, Remember, you do not be a victim of someone else’s inability to handle themselves or their job. For more information go to

Time Pressure and Expectations:
Do you take work home with you? Do you get into trouble with “your other half” when you do? Sometimes, a person may feel a sense of urgency, with self-imposed demands (rarely do you find “taking work home” as part of a written contract of employment) that says in order to climb the corporate ladder I must be seen to do more than my colleagues. Or spend so much time on unimportant tasks, meetings, chat, surfing the web, writing to-do lists that never get done, re-doing work that you stuffed up the first time, that you don’t have time to complete those things that are now urgent and important, that you feel you really should take work home – after all it will be quieter once the children have gone to bed. Whilst this may sound a little flippant, reality says that most people in middle management and upwards will take work home with them at some point during the working week. The pressure to produce results, may of course give you another headache, how do you maintain your current levels of output? If you constantly over-achieve you may find yourself with more on your plate than ever before. “Give it to Fred, he’ll do it.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Fred may decide to delegate part of his workload onto you, in which case, now you have your own work, plus part of Fred’s to do, which gets done first, Fred’s probably? And do you take your own work home? What is also interesting to note, the lower down the corporate ladder you are, the less likely you will be able to pick and choose your tasks on a daily basis, which is a considerable stress to some people, and we will be looking at this in more detail in a later section.

Doing More with Less:
It is a rare organisation that does not have staffing problems on a daily basis.  With illness, maternity leave, annual leave and sabbaticals to take into account, most organisations rarely if ever, operate at full staffing capacity. The larger the organisation is, the more likely it will be that there will be a small percentage of people who are not at work on any particular day.  If that is the case, then it should come as no surprise that most organisations will re-structure at some point during their operational lifetime to ensure that the right number of people are doing the work that is available. Whilst this may sound like an over simplistic exaggeration, the truth of the matter is that at some point in every person’s working life time they will undergo, or be a part of a down-sizing, right sizing, redundancy program. The question is how do you carry on regardless, when all around you chaos reigns?

Whilst it is relatively easy to pick up additional work if a colleague is away on holiday or on sick leave, or if a person leaves and the gap cannot be filled straight away, most people will find something in their capacity to do a bit more (to help out). This is usually because most people can work over capacity for short periods of time, especially if they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  However, some times if a position cannot be filled straight away, a decision may be taken to keep the position vacant.  Whilst the work is still there, the “person” isn’t and “Natural Attrition” takes place. Effectively downsizing an organisation by not replacing people when they leave. Of course management is then able to use this strategy to increase workloads whilst effectively reducing wages and other overheads.  Whilst Natural Attrition is a form of “down sizing” by stealth, being made “redundant” is far more stressful for all parties concerned. Handled correctly, downsizing an organisations workforce can have positive ramifications for the people who are left behind.  Handled badly and the remaining workforce may wonder if it would be better to find another job before they too are dismissed. 

Redundancies can be caused by some (or all) of the following reasons:
• Internal re-organisation;
• Change of business emphasis;
• Withdrawal from a market or product;
• Cost cutting (included in this are organisations who use redundancies to improve shareholder value);
• A merger or acquisition or
• Technology development.

The impact can be minimised with some careful planning and consideration and should cover:
• How to minimise the stress and strain on those who are leaving the organisation;
• How to promote a corporate image of care and concern; and
How to minimise the impact on morale and motivation of those people who will be staying with the organisation.

Work Life Balance:
One major stressor that does not seem to be taken into consideration when talking about the working environment is that of a person’s home life. Some of us may take work home, but there is a considerable number of people who take their home life into the working environment. If you have had a “bad day” before getting to the office, then chances are that will spill over into your working day as well. Whilst there has to be some cross over between work and “normal” life, it is important to ensure that your colleagues do not suffer because of your “bad day”.

Stressed-out employees are more likely to take sick leave and extended leave of absences from work due to “stress” causing the organisation additional headaches as they try and cover for the absences in-house, perpetuating the problem of people being over-worked, feeling unappreciated, under-paid and so on. Whilst short-term absences can be covered in this manner, long-term absences usually hit the organisations hip pocket, with temporary or contract staff required to fill the staffing gap. Add to this problem the loss of productivity; on the job training and supervision make this a problem that needs to be addressed by an organisation before it implodes.

Added to this financial mix is the cost of workers compensation claims for stress related matters. The California Workers Compensation Institute says the number of compensation claims increased by almost 700% between 1979 and 1988. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US said that the State of Maine saw an increase of 1000% since 1983. (Employee Stress: The True Cost, pp35-39; Human Capital, Issue 2.6)

Stress related accidents are another issue to be aware of. Over-worked usually means working longer hours without a break in order to get the work finished, with a loss of concentration, increased use of stimulants (coffee, cigarettes and drugs) and poor sleep patterns causing significant health problems for people who regularly work long hours or undertake shift work.

At the most fundamental psychological and neurobiological levels, stress compromises a person’s intellectual and emotional capacity. Where people feel they have little or no control over their work, their thought patterns become rigid, simplistic and superficial – if you have ever run on “auto-pilot” you will know exactly what I mean. If you have ever driven somewhere and then wondered how on earth you got there, then you are on “auto pilot” you are not taking in the subtle visual clues that are essential to handling a moving vehicle safely; reaction times are slowed because you are not paying attention. Every time you get behind the wheel of a car or operate any other kind of machinery you run the risk of harming not only yourself, but other people as well.  (If you are interested in further reading on this subject – Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence is a good place to start.)

Occupational Health and Safety and an Employers Duty of Care
As we have discussed, stress is one of the major hazards in any working environment. In general terms a hazard is something that may cause injury or harm to a person or persons. That being the case, who has a responsibility to ensure work place safety including the reduction and/or elimination of work place hazards including stress? Actually we all do. In particular:

An employer has a general duty of care under the OH&S Legislation which states: “An employer shall, so far as is practicable, provide and maintain a working environment in which employees are not exposed to hazards.” Neither a client, nor an employment agency (such as IEA) can “contract out” of their legal requirements regarding contract employees, but share a joint responsibility.

An employer must also:
. Promote and secure the safety and health of people at work;
. Protect people from hazards;
. Assist in securing a safe and hygienic working environment;
. Eliminate, reduce and control hazards;

In addition, you as an employee of the organisation must also ensure that you:
. Follow the employers Occupational Health and Safety instructions;
. Use the protective clothing and equipment that is provided;
. Do not interfere with, or misuse anything provided in the interest of safety and health, and
. Immediately report to the employer any hazard that you cannot correct, or it there is any injury or harm that occurs in connection with work.

Of course, most of what has been covered could be classed as common sense, However, if you are unsure of your organisations policy with regards to any matters relating to OH&S issues then you should speak to a member of your HR Department. For those people reading this who are registrants of IEA, this information can be located in your copy of the Registrants Handbook.

A Thought to Ponder
“Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate”
Thomas Jones