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iOn the Contrary-i Job Stress Is in Job Design

September 1, 1998
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I was recently talking with some college friends at a reunion about how the stresses in our lives had changed over the last 20 years. After all, we met each other at a time when our main concern was waking up in time for accounting class. Looking over our glasses of wine at each other, each of us confessed that jobs—either our own or our spouses—were by far the biggest cause of stress in our lives.

What’s interesting to me about this conversation is that instead of talking about why work had gotten so out of hand and whether or not there was anything we could do about it, the talk focused on how we accommodated this stress by postponing vacations, working late and spending endless hours at the dinner table complaining about the problem.

Apparently, we’re not alone. According to the 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce by the Families and Work Institute in New York City, jobs are the biggest stressor for most Americans. In fact, job and workplace stress are three times more likely to affect a person’s emotional well-being than children, aging parents, spouses, commuting, housework or any other personal demands. Despite this, employers appear to be doing very little about it.

Take the case of Merck & Co. Inc., the pharmaceutical giant based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey. Three years ago, when the company was honored by Working Mother magazine as one of the 10 best places to work in America, Perry Christensen, who was then the company’s director of HR strategy, was thrilled. The company had spent a lot of money on work/life programs—including a $7 million expansion to its on-site day-care facility—and Christensen felt the award was worth a bottle of champagne.

Employees, however, weren’t so enthusiastic. "We got a lot of flack from employees who wondered how we could be acknowledged as a family-friendly company when the work load was so demanding and relentless," Christensen admits. The disconnection between his desire to celebrate and the employees’ need to vent was so great that for the first time, Christensen and his colleagues were forced to recognize that work/life issues aren’t just about dependent care and flexible schedules. Important as these are, if companies truly want to help employees lead more balanced lives, they must also be willing to pay attention to the work itself. Today, Merck’s HR team is one of the few in the country that’s serious about redesigning jobs, eliminating unnecessary work and alleviating workplace stress.

I believe what Merck is doing is something other companies need to seriously consider and not just because most everybody I know would like less stress in their lives. Instead, companies need to think about reducing job stress because, in the language of business, it can generate great economic returns.

Work redesign lowers stress and increases productivity.
Simply put, as job pressure rises, productivity drops. While everyone can handle a certain amount of stress, if you give employees too much for too long, they won’t be producing at their peak. Furthermore, according to the National Safety Council, on an average workday, one million employees will be absent from work because of job stress. This costs companies an estimated $200 billion a year in medical costs, worker’s compensation claims and lost productivity.

Put all this together and you begin to see that job problems affect the bottom line to a much greater extent than personal problems do. While work/life programs are vital in helping employees lead more balanced lives, they aren’t enough because they don’t address the work side of the equation.

The complaints my college friends shared brought this to light. For example, one of them is a social worker whose flexible schedule is a real plus, but it doesn’t alleviate the heap of paperwork she’s required to complete at home on weekends. Another woman’s husband has a high-paying sales job that allows him to work from home, which is great because they have three young children, but she wonders about the corporate culture, where it’s OK to send employees on out-of-town trips with less than a day’s notice.

You see, companies that are serious about becoming an employer of choice—and boosting corporate productivity in the process—must be willing to take a hard look at what they’re asking employees to do each day. As Ellen Galinsky, director of the Families and Work Institute, explains: "Helping employees solve problems in their personal lives by providing special assistance programs without also reducing the extent to which jobs contribute to these problems may severely limit the overall impact of work/life programs on job performance."

Unfortunately, even companies that do appear to recognize the problem of job stress are more likely to offer stress counseling than to address the root cause of the problem. I recently asked Nancy Board, director of account management for ComPsych Corp., an EAP provider based in Chicago, whether or not her clients are taking a serious look at job-related stress. "No," she replied. "Employers are asking us to help their employees deal better with stress, but they’re not working to make jobs any easier."

Granted, in an age of global competition, incessant customer demands and rapidly changing technology, it’s not easy to think about working smarter. It’s easier to throw stress counseling or flexible work policies at employees than it is to redesign their jobs. But you may be surprised at the kinds of things employees need to feel better about work.

Don’t just throw money at the problem.
Last fall, Boston-based WFD Consulting was called in by a large financial services firm to reduce turnover in two of the company’s major call centers. Managers thought the problem was related to money, and that employees were going down the street for jobs that paid 50 cents more an hour. But individual interviews with employees revealed money wasn’t the issue—job stress was.

Employees complained of such things as inadequate training, frequent schedule changes, poor new-hire screening, lack of communication, a misguided reward system and a dingy work environment. But they didn’t just complain; they also offered workable solutions. Why? "Because we asked," explains Christensen, who left Merck a year ago to work with WFD. By assigning employees to teams devoted to solving these problems, the company was able to identify and implement solutions to the most pressing issues within just three months. The first quarter after changes were implemented, turnover had slowed from 45 percent to 32 percent, and it continues to drop.

As this experience shows, work redesign doesn’t have to take years and cost millions of dollars to be effective. Simply by asking employees about their specific stressors and how they might reduce them, HR professionals can go a long way toward alleviating the biggest source of productivity loss in Corporate America today.

But to be effective, HR must take the conversation farther than my college friends and I did. Instead of merely acknowledging that stress exists—and whining about it—you must also acknowledge that something can be done about it. Work/life programs were an excellent first step toward helping employees manage their personal lives. Now it’s time to help them out at work and reap effective bottom-line benefits.

Workforce, September 1998, Vol. 77, No. 9, pp. 21-23.

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