Stress in the Workplace: Why Is It Getting Worse?

With continued advances in computers and mobile technology, many people assumed things would get easier, more convenient, and less stressful. And yet, according to a recent Korn Ferry survey, that’s not the case.

The survey of nearly 2,000 professionals, which Korn Ferry conducted in October, asked professionals up and down an organization about the impact workplace stress had on them. More than three-quarters of the respondents, 76 percent, said stress at work has had a negative impact on their personal relationships, and 66 percent said they have lost sleep due to work stress. A small but significant number, 16 percent, said they’ve had to quit a job due to stress.

The greatest contributor to stress, according to the survey, is bosses. The survey showed 35 percent of the respondents said their boss was their biggest source of stress at work, and 80 percent said a change in leadership, such as a new direct manager or someone higher up the organizational chart, impacted their stress levels.

Observing manager behavior over the years, I can pinpoint behavior that causes employees unnecessary stress. One is not being responsive. An employee is trying to be responsible and collaborative, as she understands her boss would like, and he doesn’t respond to e-mails—and sometimes not even phone calls and texts—and acts irritable when she approaches him in person. None of this behavior from the boss is personal, the employee realizes. She knows he is just overwhelmed with his workload, but in the meantime, she experiences the stress of having to fall behind on work that requires input from him, or make a decision on her own, which will come back to bite her if it turns out to be wrong from the boss’ perspective.

Another boss behavior, or shortcoming, that causes stress is when a boss doesn’t have a good memory, and doesn’t make accommodations to work around that bad memory. I often joked that a now-retired manager had a mind like a sieve or the brain of a toddler. You could have a long, in-depth conversation one day, and just a few days later, it was as if the conversation had never occurred—he had forgotten about it entirely. In some cases, the manager would argue almost the exact opposite point of view a few months later—when circumstances had not changed. I told my mother early in my time working under the manager that I was concerned he was in the early stages of dementia. That was nine years before he retired, so it seems that if it was dementia, it never became so debilitating that he was forced to leave.

Yet another way a boss can cause stress is by not being secure enough to admit ignorance. This can lead to employees needing to swallow reservations and objections and go along with plans they know eventually will cause a problem. When I first started working under the manager with the faulty memory, we had a meeting about our magazine’s Website in which the manager argued forcefully that we would not want to make an effort at search engine optimization. He argued that if our health-care trade publication came up high in the search listings, there would be a good chance a member of the general public, rather a health-care professional, would find one of our articles. That person then would be astounded and horrified to learn that doctors also needed to make money. Fast-forward nine years, the manager is no longer on staff, but the argument he made out of ignorance has come back to haunt us, with our publisher bemoaning our poor search engine optimization. No one doing a Google search for the topics we write about is likely to find us. 

Bosses who run hot and cold emotionally also can be taxing. One day he’s smiling and chatty; the next day he’s aloof and unpleasant. The employee is left wondering if the behavior is a reflection of something she did, or a problem in the department that will impact her job. 

An important key to avoiding stress caused by bosses is choosing the right people to be managers. Once you know the qualities to avoid—disorganization, poor memory, inability to admit ignorance or mistakes, emotional instability—you can, by default, find managers who have most of the traits you do want. 

How do you ensure you have selected and trained managers who will lessen employees’ stress, rather than accelerating it?


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