Employers and employees differ on the causes — and cures — for workplace stress

In a recently released report, the professional services firm Towers Watson revealed that stress is the top workforce issue (see 2013/2014 Staying@Work U.S. Executive Summary Report). And the top causes of stress? According to employers, these are the factors:

  1. lack of work/life balance
  2. inadequate staffing
  3. technologies that expand employee availability during nonworking hours
  4. unclear or shifting job expectations.

Employees disagree, citing things in this order:

  1. inadequate staffing
  2. low pay or low increases in pay
  3. unclear or conflicting job expectations
  4. organizational culture, including lack of teamwork, and tendency to avoid accountability and assign blame to others.

Loosely translated, the primary cause of stress: too much work. Too much work stealing time away from family, community and other interests; too much work because employers are running leaner than ever before; and too much work because our companion devices are always with us, and there’s always one more email or status update to read.

I guess it comes as no surprise that employees and employers disagree, but take a look at the mismatch:

Screenshot 2013-12-04 08.51.47

Employers and employees are wildly at variance on the question of work/life balance. The employers, I guess, want to put the primary cause of stress on the back of their employees, suggesting that if they could just do a better job of balancing, things would be much better. And employers also want to blame the victim here about their addiction to mobile technologies.

The low pay issue is the second most important for employees, and no surprise, since pay for non-executives has remained flat for decades, and for many people it has fallen. People are stressed by financial issues.

And number three from the perspective of employees is unclear or conflicting job expectations. That’s an accusation that management doesn’t have its act together. And number 4, employees say organizational culture is divisive and not supportive.

The Bottom Line

This study shows a huge disconnect in business today about workplace stress. Management is not hearing the message from employees: “You are working us too hard. Pay me adequately. Make job responsibilities clear, and create a culture that supports, not divides.”

Clearly, a company that attacks those issues will decrease stress in the workforce. That translates to improved well-being for the people at work, and an improved bottom line for the company, since stress is closely linked to decreased performance, sick time, and turnover.

My recommendation would be for business to work on decreasing stress as a major initiative. Turned around, all of these factors arise from the cultural level, starting with the core principles and values of the company. And stress is a factor in burnout, as I wrote about recently (see Burnout is the consequence of a broken way of work).

Management rhetoric about the happiness of the customer, service delivery, product quality, or delivering returns to shareholders all too frequently suppresses the basic requirements of employee well-being, and that is wrong as well as unsustainable.

This is a deep and chronic issue, one that can’t be gamed with an employee-of-the-month initiative, and represents a systemic failure of the theory and practice of ‘human resources’. A disconnect this big brings the entire foundation of HR into question.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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