Can You Prevent Employee Stress by Asking for Their Input?

People have differing tolerance levels for stress. Some people are nearly immune to it, to the point that no amount of pressure can move them to finish a project on time, while others are so overwhelmed by it that they become like flooded engines, so stressed out that they are unable to do anything. Then there’s the happy medium of being able to handle stress, and use it to become more productive.

I’ve learned to fall into that last category of using stress to be more productive. But I wasn’t always that way. I used to be more like a flooded engine when stressed out—a person who would procrastinate endlessly because she was so overwhelmed with the idea of doing difficult work.

Training managers to be aware of employee stress, including preventing it in the first place, is essential to creating a productive workplace that employees find livable. Whole Foods is learning that lesson the hard way, according to a report by Hayley Peterson on Business Insider:

“A new inventory management system has employees crying on the job: The new system, called order-to-shelf, or OTS, has a strict set of procedures for purchasing, displaying, and storing products on store shelves and in back rooms. To make sure stores comply, Whole Foods relies on ‘scorecards’ that evaluate everything from the accuracy of signage to the proper recording of theft, or ‘shrink.’

Some employees who walk through stores with managers to ensure compliance describe the system as onerous and stress inducing. Conversations with 27 current and recently departed Whole Foods workers, including cashiers and corporate employees—some of whom have been with the company for nearly two decades—say the system is seen by many as punitive.

They say many employees are terrified of losing their jobs under the new system and that they spend more hours mired in OTS-related paperwork than helping customers. Some are so fed up with the new system that they have quit or are looking for other jobs. In addition to hurting morale, OTS has led to food shortages across Whole Foods stores, they say.”

What could Whole Foods have done differently?

From my perspective and experience, I would guess the company may have forgotten to get employee feedback before implementing the new system. I would have let a sample of employees across the company know what I was thinking of doing to improve inventory management. I would have asked them what they thought of the idea. Rather than presenting the system after it was a done deal, I would have started by seeing if the people it would most affect would be receptive to it. I would emphasize in my conversation with the employees that nothing had been decided for sure yet, and that it was just something we were thinking of doing, and that I was genuinely interested to hear how they thought the new system would work, and how they envisioned it affecting their daily work.

Next, regardless of the feedback I got, I would explain that we’re going test the new system out for a month, just as a trial to see how it goes. I then would meet with that same sample of employees at the end of each week of the trial to see how it’s going. In addition to asking if the employees are able to do what’s required of them in the new system, I would ask how they felt about it—whether it made their work day better, worse, or the same.

If the employees were able to handle the new system, but at a high emotional cost with much aggravation and stress, it would be smart not to go forward with it. Whatever the benefits of a new way of doing business, it has to be bearable for employees in the long term, or else you risk creating a costly employee retention problem. You also risk a public relations problem, with bitter employees telling all their friends, and complaining on sites such as Glassdoor, about how awful it is to work for your company.

I know what it’s like to have onerous systems rolled on top of you, rather than rolled out to you. In the job I’m in now, a multi-step process was introduced in our editorial production process last year. The head of our department reassured me that he had checked with various people and they all thought the new system was a great idea. The problem? He forgot to check with one very important person—me! He forgot to check with the person the new system would matter the most to.

It’s easy to forget to check with those who will most be affected by process and system changes because those people often are on the lower, or lowest, rungs of the corporate ladder. It’s good to remember that as lowly as those employees may seem, they often are the deciding factor in whether or not you are profitable.

How do you manage employee stress? How do you prevent it in the first place? Do you find out ahead of rolling out new systems how the employees most affected by it feel about the new plan?

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