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The season of stress?

stres-seasonIt sounds so trite to me that I hardly want to say it, but I feel so busy, it’s almost out of control. In the last few years I’ve managed to say to myself at least twice a year: “I’ve never been busier in my life.” (I try to take this as both a positive and a negative. It means I’m doing things, which I like, but it also means I might be doing too many things. I’m either over-extended or under-organized.) I doubt any readers will be surprised that I find this time of the year especially full. And it’s not just work deadlines weighing me down. I’m renovating my house; I’m buying Christmas gifts; I’m visiting friends; I have hobbies and other projects; then there are birthdays and holiday parties and a hundred little things that come up. And it all seems to be jammed into a few weeks before Christmas. (I haven’t been reduced to online shopping on the day itself yet!)

What does this have to do with work? Well, I’m wondering what types of pressures you’re feeling this season—both at and away from work—and how you deal with them. My coping method is to pray desperately for vacation (four days away!) and think about how great I’ll feel in the new year.

The thing is, and we’ve written about it before, stress is a huge problem in Canada’s workplaces, and not just at this time of the year. A recent survey found 30 percent of workers feel more stressed than last year, and the top stressors are work-related: excess work, poor work environment, lack of recognition and insufficient remuneration. These issues are often related to work-life balance, which also scored high. According to a 2007 Health Canada study, Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn’t, work-life balance usually means role overload (too much work), work-to-family interference, family-to-work interference or caregiver strain

There’s lots of talk these days about how employers should be helping their employees find balance between their work and personal lives, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m not sure the existing work culture in North America supports healthy work-life balance. Some say that we’ve made a deal with the devil in exchanging our precious time for more money, but now that we have the money, we just want more time. It’s like we’ve reversed our priorities, choosing to expand the economy instead of our own happiness.

But that’s not to say employers can’t or shouldn’t try to help. It’s in employers’ interest that their employees remain healthy, and employers can help keep employees healthy in a number of ways, including measures to enhance their work-life balance, such as alternative or flexible scheduling, condensed weeks, telecommuting, daycare, gym memberships and so on. These things can reduce employee stress levels either by allowing workers to arrange their days and work time so they can take care of personal chores or projects, or so they can work at the time they feel most productive, or by reducing employees’ financial worries. But not all workers can take advantage of these measures, if indeed the employer is willing to consider them, and a measure can only help if an employee uses it. In addition, according to the Health Canada study, employers may:

point with pride to the many “programs” available in their organization to help employees meet family obligations, these programs or options do not diminish the fact that most people simply have more work to do than can be accomplished by one person in a standard work week. … many of the ways employees attempt to cope with workload issues do not benefit employees, their families, employers or Canadian society in general. … employers and governments need to recognize that the issue of work-life conflict cannot be addressed without addressing the issue of workload.

Putting aside the question of helping employees balance their work and personal lives, employers do have a duty to maintain a healthy work environment, although I’m not sure how many legal challenges employees have made over high-stress workplaces. (Overtime has been the subject of more than a few legal complaints.) However, with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, employers (only in Ontario now, but we expect other provinces to follow) may have an additional incentive to modify work conditions to reduce employee stress. That is, stress can exacerbate or cause mental illness, usually in the form of depression, exhaustion, anxiety or addictions, among others, and physical conditions like bipolar syndrome, ulcers, diabetes, heart disease and numerous others that might be considered disabilities that require accommodation. In other words, besides the general advantages of  keeping employees healthy, employers have legal obligations that require consideration and planning.

So what do we do? Well, I’m a strong supporter of the four-day workweek, and I’d love to hear what you think about that initiative. Employers can also canvass their employees to find out what types of measures they would find most helpful, and develop policies to implement them. This includes limiting the use of mobile devices to stay connected outside of work hours, and restricting overtime in general. In many cases it comes down to offering an environment where employees feel comfortable communicating their issues, and managers (and the employer) support employees.

The Health Canada study, Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn’t, is a good place to start, as it offers lots of useful and detailed information on the causes of employee stress and what employers can do about it. HRinfodesk‘s library also contains lots of articles on workplace stress and work-life balance.

Now I want to know how your workplace handles employee stress organizationally. How do you handle it, personally?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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