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Stress: The New Occupational Hazard

Have some of your best employees suddenly lost interest in their work? Do they look tired and talk of being utterly exhausted? Are they piling vacation requests onto your desk?

Warning bells should be going off in your head. Your employees may be burned–out — and your business' bottomline could be in jeopardy. "If a company has too many employees showing signs of stress and burnout, it's going to see a marked reduction in productivity and efficient customer responses," says Dr. Harry Sobel, of Sobel and Associates, a company specializing in employee assistance programs.

Facts and figures

Business owners may want to look actively for signs of severely stressed employees, as burnout is more common than ever. "Nearly half of all American workers suffer from symptoms of burnout, a disabling reaction to job stress," say experts at The American Institute of Stress.

As a whole, employee burnout costs American businesses an estimated $300 billion a year1 due to reduced productivity, accidents, employee turnover, legal, medical and insurance fees, and widespread absenteeism. "An estimated one million workers are absent on an average workday because of stress–related complaints," according to the American Institute of Stress.

The prime signs of burnout include, lethargy, sadness, inability to find joy, exhaustion, and sleep problems.

Causes and signs

Some of the factors contributing to this occupational hazard include increased competition, the increasing number of customer demands, and the continually accelerating speed of the business world. "The global marketplace," says Sobel "which includes the Internet, forces businesses to respond in minutes or hours rather than days or weeks."

Severely stressed people may also question whether they are making a contribution to society/company, feel out of control, and have little sense of commitment. They may seem detached, cynical, impatient, and "have real interpersonal hassles with coworkers," says Sobel.

You may want to keep your eyes on select employees. Some experts believe that certain people are more likely to experience burnout. Perfectionists, those who set high internal demands, and people who are overly critical of themselves and their work tend to be at the most risk. "It's usually not the whiners — it's the dedicated ones who go quiet on you," Sandy Ewing, a human resources consultant.

Burnout is bad news, but if caught early enough it can be turned around. Better still, there are a number of steps your company can take to help prevent employee burnout.

Empathize with your employees

Keep in mind that your employees have a life outside of the office and may be dealing with a number of personal issues and problems. "Companies need to realize profitability ultimately follows a greater compassion about the multiple responsibilities and dimensions of people's lives, [so] becoming more family friendly will benefit bottomline in the long run," says Sobel. For example, consider offering flex–time to employees with daycare constraints, suggest employees take an afternoon off during the holiday season to do off–peak shopping, or help workers who are having car problems get a ride to and from work. Any steps, even simple ones, you take to ease your employees' burdens can help ward off burnout.

Empower your employees

Move away from micromanaging employees who you consider competent. Assign them projects, but don't tell them exactly how to complete every task. Try a new attitude, say "this is how I want it to look at the end of the day," suggests Ewing. Then let them take care of the particulars.

No matter what projects and responsibilities you assign your employees, always ask for their opinions.

If possible, allow your employees to choose some of the projects they undertake. Host a company or department roundtable. Put forth all of the company's upcoming projects; then ask employees which ones interest them. You may not be able to accommodate every request due to varying expertise, but your workers are likely to appreciate the gesture and enjoy working on some projects of their choice.

Share your plans

Communicate the company's short– and long–term goals to your employees. For example, let them know how you hope to grow the business, what kind of advertising campaigns you'll be launching, how many new people you expect to hire or even what color you plan to paint the employee break room. Keeping them in the loop can help workers feel part of a bigger picture.

Create brag files

Let your employees know that you are proud of their work. Maintain a brag file for each of your employees, recommends Ewing. Fill these files with copies of thank–you letters from pleased customers, certifications, excellent client presentations, and other superior work efforts. This information will come in handy during annual reviews. Brag files also show your employees that you value their contributions to the company.

Set limits

Endless hours of overtime can contribute to burnout. Sobel recommends that you put a limit on long hours. Yes, there will be times when you need your employees to put in extended and intensive hours, but realize that it cannot go on forever. If you know that certain employees have been in the office every night for the past two weeks until nine o'clock, send them home. Drop by their desks at quitting time, thank them for their recent dedication, and suggest they head home to relax. If you absolutely need them in the office, acknowledge their hard work and long hours; then offer to let them come in late the next day or take extra time off when the project as been completed.

...approximately 40% of employee turnover can be attributed to stress.

Encourage daily walks

Movement increases creativity and helps people get their work done faster, according to Ewing. She suggests you let your employees know it's okay to take short breaks and to go out for walks. Ewing says that a number of psychology studies suggest adults have attention spans of about eight to 15 minutes. "If the job offers task variety (speaking, writing, movement, participation, etc.), concentration can be sustained for about two to three hours. After that most adults need a break from the job." Stupid mistakes, not being able to concentrate, moodiness, lack of progress, burning eyes, and muscle cramps signal a person needs a break.

To show your endorsement of short walks, Ewing recommends taking walks during one–on–one meetings with employees.

Food for thought

Taking lunch away from their desks in a break room, cafeteria, or outside allows your employees to recharge both physically and emotionally. As we know, the nutrients in food refuel the body, and the break from work refreshes the mind. Ewing says just 30 minutes away from a project can give employees a new perspective. Additionally, "lunch is a great time to build relationships with coworkers. In the cafeteria, employees have an opportunity to meet people from other departments and see the big picture."

Perk up

Helping your employees reenergize may also relieve some stress. Currently, providing free snacks and beverages is a popular workplace practice. If you go this route, Ewing recommends supplying a variety of healthy foods, not just candy. She suggests putting out a big bowl of fruit and keeping cheese and crackers on hand for protein boosts.

A diversion or two might also help. As a business owner, you may have contacts within the community to negotiate special deals for your employees such as discounted dinners at local restaurants, health club passes, and inexpensive movie tickets. Again, handing out these rewards reinforces to your employees that you appreciate their hard work.

In the long run

If your employees' long–term welfare isn't enough to encourage you to keep tabs on the stress levels within your office, consider these figures. According to the American Institute of Stress, "nine out of ten stress [law] suits are successful, with an average payout more than four times that for regular injury claims." Plus, the Institute says that approximately 40% of employee turnover can be attributed to stress. You'll be left looking for new workers, and employee replacement costs range between $2,000 and $13,0002 per person.

In the long run, keeping stress to a minimum can help save your company time and money.

1"Stress – America's #1 Health Problem," The American Institute of Stress, Yonkers, New York

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