Supporting Workers in high stressed jobs is the target of a number of new techniques that can improve productivity

It costs businesses dearly when employees call in sick at the last minute or even worse, when they come to work complaining and dragging their feet. Productivity takes a nosedive along with the morale of their co-workers and managers.

Chronic absenteeism, backaches, migraines, substance abuse, marital and family conflicts, financial problems, and poor job performance are some of the more obvious manifestations of job stress.

Less obvious but just as destructive are the pervasive feelings of frustration, hopelessness and anger that any stressed out employee carries to work each day, like so much extra baggage.

According to a recent survey by Integra Realty Resources, one in eight workers in the United States had called in sick because of workplace stress and one in five had quit a job because of it. This cost of job stress to businesses is estimated at $200 billion per year.

Stress is responsible for more than half of the 550,000,000 workdays lost every year just from absenteeism. In a 2000 poll by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of both men and women say work has a significant impact on their stress level, and one in four has called in sick or had taken a “mental health day” as a result of work stress. These employed but absent workers add up to more than one million workers a day who miss work.

The 4 top causes of stress reported in a February 2003 USA Today survey were:
54% – demands of the job
20% – co-workers
10% – boss
8% – layoff fears

Lower productivity and absenteeism is not a symptom reserved only for the low-pay, low-skilled hourly worker either. Executives alone cost American industry more than $10 billion annually through lost workdays, hospitalization and early death caused by stress.

The pain to employers and employees doesn’t just stop at absenteeism and illness. Forty percent of employee turnover can be traced back to job-related stress.

Health care expenditures are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress.  American industry is spending more than $26 billion every year in stress-related disability payments and medical bills.  Sixty to eighty percent of industrial accidents are due to stress. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders estimates that sleep loss alone is costing American business $150 billion per year in stress related accidents, inattention, and lower workplace productivity. Employed adults who experience sleeplessness do so an average of eight times in a typical month, according to a National Sleep Foundation survey.

Workers interviewed for the survey said that on days after they experience sleeplessness: Their concentration reaches only 70 percent of what it typically is on days when they feel rested. They accomplish 76 percent of what they usually can do on days when they feel rested. The quality of their work is 80 percent of what it is on days when they feel rested.

Respondents also were asked about the difficulty they have performing their job on days after they experience sleeplessness. Responses showed that: Sixty-three percent report having more difficulty handling stressful situations on the job. Six in ten report more difficulty concentrating on what they are doing. Fifty-seven percent experience more difficulty listening to what others are saying. A similar proportion (55%) face difficulty solving problems. Nearly half (48%) report difficulty making decisions. Forty-three percent have more difficulty relating to their co-workers.

While employers attempt to improve productivity in order to control costs and increase profits, on-the-job stress is leaving organizations with less and less to show for their efforts despite having the best laid plans and intentions.

One thing employers can do to recognize and minimize on-the-job stress is to minimize what is commonly called the me-job conflict. Me-job conflicts occur when the work style of the individual conflicts with how the job needs to be done.

For example, one of your most dependable and well-liked employees is recommended to be promoted into the position of customer service specialist. Who better to deal with dissatisfied customers but a low-key and nothing-ever-seems-to-rattle-him employee?

In the new job he is exposed to angry and demanding customers one call after another. The angrier the customer, the more he gets stressed. But under no circumstances does he ever lose his cool. That is exactly why he was recognized as a top candidate for this job.

Preferring to be cooperative and wanting to avoid conflict, the people-person accepts the stress as “just part of the job.” But under that likeable and dedicated exterior is a fireball ready to turn to ashes. His stomach is churning, pulse increasing, blood pressure rising, restless nights occurring more often and before long the job begins to take its toll on his personal life as well.

Although stress is inevitable and unavoidable, individuals whose work styles are mismatched to a job only increases the risk of job-related absenteeism, illness, mistakes and accidents. Eliminating the stress is impossible but behavioral and personality assessments are becoming an economical and effective way to identify employees who are most at risk and as tools to help coach managers coach them on how to cope with and manage stressful situations.

One assessment is based on the DISC model. The instrument used must include a two-graph model. Most DISC instruments lack the validation and reliability to be used for anything more than communication training and team building. And most popular DISC tools base their results on a third graph, the average of the two graphs.

The CriteriaOne DISC instrument is a two-graph model. One graph called the natural graph assesses how an individual prefers to confront problems, influence people, pace themselves, and follow procedures. The second graph, called the adapted graph, assesses how individuals see themselves performing the job. If any one or more of the four scales is stretched 20 percent or more, this particular portion of the job is likely to be a source of potential job stress. Above 35 percent, this adaptation is likely to lead to mental or physical stress.

A second instrument, Prevue, is based on the five-factor personality model. One of the factors is called stability and assesses how an individual copes with criticism and adverse situations. Some individuals take criticisms in stride, are self assured and dignified. Others are prone to lose their temper and view the world as hostile and suspicious. Individuals who are more poised and relaxed can better manage the “stretches” identified in the CriteriaOne DISC tool, while those who are more excitable and restless are likely to experience the symptoms of stress and burnout.

As employers struggle to improve productivity and contain costs, they can ill afford to place employees in positions that might lead to job stress and consequently lower productivity. An organization that recognizes these issues and strives to address them early and proactively not only helps retain and motivate its employees but also helps itself remain competitive and profitable.

Ira S. Wolfe is founder of Success Performance Solutions. His firm specializes in employee selection and performance management. Clients include Expanets, TYCO Healthcare, RTO Enterprises (Canada), Home Banc as well as regional clients Triangle Refrigeration, Super Dog Pet Food Company, Clean Burn and Scenic Ridge Construction. To learn more about using assessments to assess personality and competence, attend Stop Guessing, Start Knowing – a FREE workshop scheduled on April 30. 2003. To reserve a seat, call 717.291-4640 or email: