Stressed to the Limit

September 1, 1999
The Question:
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve experienced while working in HR?

The Answers:
  • Having to separate the company president and an employee who were actively engaged in sexual conduct at a company function.

  • A male employee sticking another (female) employee’s head under the sink and soaking her.

  • An employee’s car had been repossessed. He went berserk and ran through the plant. Police had to mace him in the middle of the production floor.

  • Finding the shipping crew standing in the dumpster smoking pot.

  • Discovering an employee involved in self-mutilation on the job.

  • An employee who was terminated chased after and hit her supervisor over the head with a coffee pot, then began beating her.

    Are you shocked by this bizarre behavior?

    Not likely.

    People are on the edge, and acting it out in the workplace. They’re yelling obscenities at each other, coming into work chronically late, throwing food in the cafeteria, and crying in the hallways. It’s not just a matter of acting a little inappropriately anymore. No, it’s gotten far worse than that. Nice people are having trouble with alcohol, drugs, depression and acting aggressively at work.

    And these aren’t isolated instances - instead, they’re a composite picture from chronic work distress, as well as difficulties trying to deal with personal life overload from marital problems, single parenthood, financial worries and the like. The stress is so great that people are snapping. And no one has to tell you that it’s getting worse.

    “The workplace is really just a microcosm of society, and it often becomes a pressure cooker,” says Mark Braverman, Ph.D., author of Preventing Workplace Violence: A Guide for Employers and Practitioners (Altamira Press, 1999). “Some people are vulnerable and break down in particular ways. Violence is one response to unbearable stress, as are physical illness, mental illness, and suicide.”

    Although these actions aren’t likely to surprise you, they’re most often viewed and talked about as independent problems: workplace violence, job-related substance abuse or work-related depression. It might be valid to view these acts as individual problems, but it’s also time to take a look at them together as a sign of dysfunction in which some of the employee population becomes victims. They can’t handle their lives - and they bring their difficulties to work.

    As every HR practitioner knows, these employees come gasping to HR for help - oftentimes after it’s too late. And if your company doesn’t have a safety net of systems in place, you’re likely to miss many of the warning signs. 

Stress has its consequences.
    You better believe there are costs associated with ignoring employee difficulties. Take the small Seattle-based computer consulting firm, for example, that sacrificed an important client and lost over $100,000 because an employee who was managing the project had a personal crisis and disappeared. He was was running the project and was due to launch the system. He began showing signs of stress, but no one really thought much about it because he was very well regarded. 

    “One day the CEO received a call from the client that the consultant just didn’t show up. This was the day the project was supposed to go live,” explains writer Jeffrey Seglin, of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University. Seglin interviewed the CEO, VP of Operations and Director of HR of the firm for an article in Inc. magazine. “The job wasn’t complete and no one could find the consultant. Three days later, his sister called the company and explained that he had started drinking again.”

    Unfortunately, examples like these aren’t all that unusual, and the economic cost of personal problems that interfere with job performance in Corporate America is severe indeed. Just look at a few statistics.

    The U.S. economy loses approximately $200 billion annually because of lost productivity due to stress, according to the International Labor Organization, cited in a 1997 Gannet News Service article. Furthermore, in a 1999 Occupational Hazards article, Dr. Linda Rosenstock, director of NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) states that American workers put in an average of 47 hours a week, which is almost 10 percent more than two decades ago, with 75 percent of workers believing there’s greater stress on the job.

    A 1994 survey published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and conducted by the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiology showed there was $80.9 billion in lost productivity related to alcohol problems and drug abuse. And according to a 1998 article in the Academy of Management Executive, 75 to 90 percent of doctor visits are stress related. 

    The U.S. Department of Justice (Bureau of Justice Statistics, July, 1994) says that those who are victimized at the workplace cost 500,000 employees about 3.5 days of work per crime. That totals over $55 million in lost wages, not including days covered by sick and annual leave.

    Now, calculate these figures to the mix: One in every 12 full-time adult employees under 50 is an alcohol abuser. Six percent of alcohol abusers and 15 percent of illicit drug abusers admit to being high or drunk on the job within the last year, and 40 percent of them work that way at least one day a week according to An Analysis of Worker Drug Use and Workplace Policies and Programs (U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1997). 

    And, according to a 1994 survey by the American Management Association, over 50 percent of HR managers reported that their companies had incidents of threats of violence within the past four years; 30 percent said it happened more than once. 

    It’s pervasive. Obviously, when employees can’t cope, it costs the organization a lot in lost revenues, damaged relationships with co-workers and customers, and employee turnover due to people leaving jobs in which they’re subjected to others whose behavior is out of control. Notice that potential litigation isn’t even included in the tally. 

What kind of breeding ground is today’s workplace?
    All this tension is exacerbated by a workplace that’s riddled with tight deadlines, high expectations for productivity, and fewer people available to do the job.

    “The workplace is just an environment in which an individual functions over an extended period of time, and all of the factors operating in that person’s life converge to influence how they behave,” says Ralph Tarter, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. 

    “Similarly, events that take place in the workplace converge and influence how that individual will act outside of the workplace. They can’t be separated - a stressful job can spill over to the family and mental health spheres, and difficulties in the family and mental-health areas will spill over into the work environment as well.”

    Interactive - and cumulative - it’s important to view the entire situation as a system. With workforces being thinned down and increased urgency to meet competitive demands, a lot of pressure is exerted on employees. Managers have so much more work to do in less time and with fewer people, it often affects communication and the way they deal with people. “Managers can no longer take the time to be interested,” says Braverman. “Not only in how they’re doing personally, but even how well they’re doing on the job.”

    Then, when someone feels isolated, unappreciated or as if he or she has no voice, it puts that individual under enormous pressure. In fact, workplace health practitioners have shown that it’s not overwork or work stress, per se¸that creates a breakdown or illness. “It’s the sense of losing control over the work they do and the conditions under which they work,” says Braverman.

    What does a dysfunctional workplace look like? It’s a place where people feel powerless. When troubled individuals emit danger signs, the system ignores them or controls them with a bureaucratic, impersonal approach. Often, they’re hit with disciplinary systems. And this only makes matters worse.

    When people experience difficulty, they tend to withdraw and bury the problem. These are the workers who are difficult for HR managers (or supervisors and co-workers) to spot. In fact, in the 1996 Workplace Violence Survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 60 percent of HR managers said they would not have been able to identify beforehand who the violent perpetrators were in their workplace. You can’t only rely on characteristics and checklists to predict human behavior. 

What can HR do?
    If most people can’t predict the people who are troubled, then your organization must have systems in place to identify early signs so you can intervene. But, the standard systems for resolving disputes and taking care of disciplinary or performance problems aren’t what you want for dealing with people in trouble. There must be alternate procedures - they must be consultative and able to respond sensitively to the employee who’s having trouble.

    For example, some companies attempt to do the right thing, but actually end up exacerbating the problem because they become punitive, which forces the employee to withdraw and become even more defensive. The more effective method is to respond in a way that increases communication between the employee and employer. So, if you’ve received a report that someone has been acting strangely, rather than suspend the person and send him off immediately to see a doctor (if there’s no safety threat or imminent emergency), the person needs to sit down and speak with someone.

    The manager or counselor could say directly, “Look, this is what we’re hearing. And, it’s so serious because we have a policy and you’ve broken those rules.” Then, talk about what might happen next. For example, it could be an assessment, but at all times, you want to let the employee know that you’re suspending judgment - as if it were a sexual harassment case. 

    Then, once you’ve taken the next step, talk with the person and clearly spell out what the consequences might be. These frank discussions give the person a sense of connection and control. Even though the communication isn’t good news, it’s clear and people know what’s happening.

    However, this kind of clarity must start with a clearly stated HR policy that is also widely communicated. Unlike other situations, it’s best if these discussions occur with senior management. You don’t want to solve this at the lowest level because it can easily go undetected. By bumping the discussions higher in the organization, you not only have people with more skill to assess the behavior, but it also gets into the corporate culture.

    By creating a written policy that involves managers, it recognizes that managers also have to think about spending more time with their employees. This acts like a safety net, too. When managers can’t plan and can’t talk with the people who are having problems, these employees feel alienated and may begin to spiral out of control.

    Once you’ve recognized the problems (which could be a change of behavior, or a change of personality or change of physical appearance), and sat down to discuss the situation in a cooperative, consultative manner, how do you help the individual?

    “You would either make a referral to the internal employee assistance program (EAP), a social agency or an HMO,” says Tarter. “The first thing is to assess how severe the problem is and then find a good service agency. Over and over again, we’ve learned that the person must be recruited into the decision-making process as a partner, and not in an authoritative way. The person must see how their responses are creating their problems.”

    Obviously, you want to start with the highest quality EAP. “The demand for EAP services is just exploding this year because the demand for this type of service is increasingly pronounced,” says Richard Chaifetz, CEO of Chicago-based ComPsych Corporation who already covers 4 million individuals worldwide, and expects to add another 2 to 3 million by 2000. 

    “You just can’t get away from the stress of work. With e-mail, pagers, cell phones, people who are committed to their jobs are essentially on the job 24 hours a day. Employees aren’t getting any time away - time to defuse - like they had in the past. So the stress may be related to the fact that if you can’t get away from the work, it compounds whatever issues you normally would have faced 10 years ago.” 

Assess the organization’s culture.
    Sometimes, the problem is also because of the culture of the workers themselves. One of Chaifetz’ clients is a software development firm - very fast growing, made up of mostly younger people. ComPsych was called in because senior management was concerned about the level of aggressiveness among the workers. “Our HR consultant came back appalled by the conduct exhibited there,” says Chaifetz. 

    “It’s a highly aggressive environment, where curse words were typical for employee-to-employee communication and people were screaming at each other to get things done faster. Most companies wouldn’t accept it, but that had become the culture.”

    The work, in this case, started with the senior managers. The assessment of the workplace was the first step, then the EAP had to get buy-in from senior managers in order to teach them what would be acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In this case, they moved to an offsite location and had a mini-retreat, where they worked through exercises and new ways of dealing with employees. It was crucial for managers to understand how the day-to-day behavior would translate into the overall culture. It was on the verge of becoming grossly unhealthy, and they needed to take major steps to change the environment.

    Indeed, the traditional ways in which companies address quality-of-life issues are exceptionally important. Excellence in wellness programs and dependent-care support should be the target. Some companies, such as Netscape Communications, based in Mountain View, California, go a step further and have “take your pet to work” days to help lighten the environment. Patagonia encourages its staff to take lunch breaks to go mountain biking or surfing. Your firm’s culture and employee needs determine the programs.

    But take a step back. HR has a powerful arsenal of options available before having to formalize and send someone to the EAP. “My goal is to create the type of workplace environment and design the types of programs and benefits that allow people to extend themselves and succeed to the maximum - both professionally and personally,” says Cathy Murphy, senior director, worldwide benefits and employee services at Mountain View, California-based America Online. 

    “Because of technological advances, the lines between home and the workplace have blended. They’re so intertwined that living skills and work skills often intercept through the course of the day. So there’s a great deal of distraction and stress for people to manage their lives.”

    America Online offers a variety of assistance to address those difficulties - from concierge services to wellness programs. In addition, HR is available in the business units, with round tables to discuss various issues of interest to employees. Many of the transactional aspects of HR are handled through the company call center (HR Direct), while more personal needs are addressed through HR Direct Live. Not only does the HR Direct model free up time for staff to address more personal issues, but it also provides a way to track trends. 

    For example, if one unit has a lot of calls requesting a particular service, it may be a warning sign that an HR manager should check the unit and see if there’s anything amiss.

    More than systems in place, HR can play a valuable role on an ad-hoc basis when employees run into trouble. HR can provide a variety of stress-relieving options for workers who are experiencing a life crisis, or a continuing life problem. Think of the ways you might help a valuable employee - by providing some breathing room, arranging work support, or even simply helping the employee identify ways to temporarily streamline the workload.

    The cacophony of activity and the dissonance of life on the job are not about to change any time soon. The type of workplace in existence as we head into the new millennium is not a sweet, slow, sentimental - or humanitarian - one. Consequently, it’s up to HR, senior management, as well as employees to take responsibility to begin a change in the environment that will at least identify when people have problems coping in a Brave New World.

Workforce, September 1999, Vol 78, No 9, pp. 48-54  Subscribe Now!