When an employee reports being sickened at work by toxic fumes leaking into their work area, most organizations will carefully and expeditiously investigate the matter. We expect them to seek out the origin of the fumes and engineer a solution that protects employees from illness and the organization from liability. It would be short sighted and foolish, not to mention morally and legally indefensible, for the organization to make the employee solely responsible for fixing the problem.
Yet this response, of putting the onus on the individual employee, is often what happens when an employee reports that their health, well-being, safety or productivity are being degraded by stressful work conditions. There is a colossal disconnect between what we now know about the impact of stress on health, safety, employee engagement and organizational practices for responding to reports of psychologically unhealthy work conditions.
During the past few years there has been a developing consensus that stress is a leading driver of escalating health care costs and an underlying factor in most modifiable diseases including cardiac issues, obesity and diabetes. Companies have responded by implementing wellness programs, incentive systems, and educational initiatives that recognize the direct correlation between employee health and organizational success.
However, in most organizations there is not a comparable effort to rigorously identify and improve those management practices that increase employee stress and damage individual health and productivity. This disconnect leads to the flawed strategy of investing in programs (wellness coaching, EAPs, seminars) to help individual employees reduce an increasing stress burden while continuing operational practices that add to it.
For example, in the past several years many companies have drastically reduced their investments in supervisor and manager training programs with predictable results. The quality of supervision employees receive can vary wildly within the same company and, in my opinion, poor supervision is clearly the most significant, and avoidable, driver of employee stress. Companies don’t stress their employees, supervisors do.
Managing people, itself a stressful occupation, is an incredibly complex and challenging task. Communicating effectively with diverse populations, balancing work flows, setting priorities and resolving interpersonal conflicts in a consistently fair and professional manner requires extraordinary skill. The management challenges are becoming even greater with teams that are increasingly dispersed across various time zones and countries.
Companies delegate to their managers the power to alter the arc of individual careers: to advance or obstruct, to encourage or dishearten, to energize or to stress employees. Managers have enormous influence on the health, well-being and productivity of individual employees and on the success of the organization. Companies should be making investments in management training that reflect their commitment to ensuring that this authority is exercised with the greatest possible preparation and skill.