Category Archives: employee stress

When Grief Hits Home at Work

From the beginning of the American workplace, there have been workers in various stages of life and life events. All part of the 515860456 -- sad employeehumans-as-resources thing.

I’ve been through my fair share: raising kids while working; having kids while working, for that matter; getting them into college, then becoming an empty nester; surviving the end of their dad’s and my marriage, then getting them used to another …

But not until I lost my spouse — my kids’ zany, crazy, brilliant, life-loving dad and stepdad — did I know just how profound an impact the grief  event could have on work. And that was three short months after seeing my incredible dad through his final wrestling match with cancer.

I have a whole new respect for employers that choose to acknowledge and focus on the power pain can have on employees, and for colleagues and supervisors who’ve mastered the art of listening.

In fact, listening is just one of many helpful suggestions I came across recently in this piece, Helping a Grieving Friend in the Workplace, from Cincinnati-based Hodapp Funeral Homes. Until I went through my own nightmare, I honestly never would have considered the part managers, co-workers and HR can play in working to regenerate engagement and productivity in a shell-shocked, grief-stricken worker.

I’ve had those moments, fingers poised on the keyboard, when the words won’t come. I now know the fear, loneliness and incredible self-doubt, wondering if I can handle the same tasks I aced throughout my career in journalism and publishing, or the same projects around the house I used to enjoy. I know the frustration over how long it all seems to take.

But I also now know how helpful help is. And I also know I can now help others.

Judie Bucholz, a faculty member at Columbia Southern University specializing in human and organizational systems, weighed in on all this with me. As she put it,

“We know dealing with death is difficult, and yet, as an American society, we typically give our employees three days off to ‘deal’ with it and come back to work as if nothing ever happened. The reality is something did happen and three days is hardly enough time to acknowledge the reality of death, let alone deal with it.

“We cannot change corporate America and business, so what can we do to help those we work with [or employ] who are grieving the death of a friend or family member?”

She suggests the following:

  • Offering to take the kids for a day or for a sleepover;
  • Volunteering to do chores, such as cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, cleaning the pool, washing the car, etc.;
  • Sending gift certificates to favorite eateries, spas, beauty salons, etc.;
  • Helping with a project so the employee can leave early one Friday.

Yet, she says:

“Perhaps the best thing we can do is ask our co-worker [or employee] how he or she is doing and then take the time to listen — even if it makes us uncomfortable.”

And if those dealing with loss and grief want to quietly focus on work without talking, or silently space at a computer monitor from time to time, just let them do that, too.

Do You Walk the Talk of Work/Life Like This One?

Headshot - Shani Godwin
Shani Godwin, Communiqué USA

I just got off the phone with Shani Godwin, the fascinating CEO of a small business in Smyrna, Ga., called Communiqué USA — and, rather than wait another minute before getting her whole work/life approach into a post, I’m typing now. That’s how much her message has inspired me.

She caught my eye in an initial email spelling out the details of a policy she implemented many years ago — long before France announced its new law last April banning all employees from emailing for work past 6 p.m.

In Godwin’s case, she disallows her employees to email for work past 7 p.m. on weeknights and throughout the weekends. And she’s been doing that — and much, much more — almost since she founded her company 14 years ago because of her sincere belief that your employees are only as good as the people you allow them to be.

And that, she would tell you, includes parents who need to be at a bus stop at 2:30 p.m., or a T-ball game for an entire afternoon, or a school play or doctor’s appointment. It includes elder-caregivers who need to tend to Mom or Dad, or a spouse or significant other, or God forbid, a loved one in hospice.

It also includes any and all employees who are sick for however long it takes them to get well (I was talking to Godwin the day she returned from being out for a full week with the flu), or who might simply be feeling burned out and in need of time away from the office or maybe a two-week vacation. (If you’re wondering how far afield this vacation concept is, read Mike O’Brien’s HRE Daily post about the upsurge among millennials of what’s being called “vacation shame.”)

“People loan themselves to the job every day,” says Godwin. “If I can’t give back so these people can enjoy the first 18 years of a child’s life, then what good am I and what good are they?” In fact, she chooses to have happy, balanced employees instead of what seems to still dominate the corporate American workforce (drained, overworked and always-on, 24/7, workaholics. ) She insists on it. She even makes her email policy and work/life commitment part of every client contract.

“We don’t finalize any assignment involving clients and employees until all details are clear and agreed upon,” she says. “If the person we’re assigning the contract to needs to be at the bus stop at a certain time every day, it’s written into the contract. So is the fact that no one from our company will be getting back to the client via email past 7 p.m. or on weekends.”

How do clients feel about that? They seem to be more accepting than employees, it seems.

“We have to be very strict and policing sometimes about keeping to this commitment to balance,” Godwin says. “Employees, employers, society in general, we’re all connected. To truly have balance, you need strict boundaries, and you need to adhere to them. It’s never been the clients who need reminding; it’s actually the employees. We have to say, ‘Hey, we saw you sent that email at 8 p.m. … don’t do that again.’ ”

In the last year, “the company has grown, project by project, from five employees to 15,” she says. Albeit still a very small company, it’s big enough now to demand a more systemic, structured, formalized and policy-driven approach if everyone is going to really adhere to her be-good-to-yourself and be-free restrictions. “For my staff,” she says, “I encourage them all to decide to what extent they want to work.”

That means, if work builds up and there’s too much for an employee with small children to handle, given his or her work/life-balance criteria, Godwin says, “we just hire someone else to fill that need and our message to the current employee is, ‘Thank you for doing your personal best to create another job for another person to come in.’ Rather than simply ‘rewarding’ them with more work [which no doubt goes on in corporate America far more than we think, methinks], we create another job so that person is still protected and able to pick up her kids every day.”

So where does this most-unique position in business come from? All the way back to when Godwin was a member of corporate America herself, with advertising and marketing stints at Bell South and Chick-fil-A, as well as other large employers.

“Fourteen years ago, I could not envision how I could possibly keep up the schedule I had and ever have a life, or ever even entertain the thought of having a family.”

She remembers asking herself back then, “How can I really be there for ballet classes and baseball games? That’s simply not going to happen.”

“I personally believe we have no company without our employees and if they’re happy and living balanced lives, they’ll be energized and productive, and the clients will be treated well,” says Godwin.

“There no sense in bugging someone to give you [a report or piece of information] while they’re attending a funeral” or involved in a birth … or even just a kid’s activity.

“It’s been a personal decision for me to put people before profit,” she says, and it appears to be paying off in terms of retention, morale and employee-satisfaction results.

Could it work in the same corporate America she left 14 years ago? I guess we won’t know until we try.

‘Rethinking’ Approaches to Work/Life Balance

There’s been no shortage of studies over the years on the topic of work/life balance and its impact on employee effectiveness, with most suggesting the two are undeniably intertwined.

ThinkstockPhotos-462450933Well, the latest of these studies is the focus of a piece by Susan Dominus titled “Rethinking the Work-Life Equation” in this Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine. In it, Dominus, a staff writer for the magazine, references the latest research by University of Minnesota Professor Phyllis Moen and MIT Professor Erin Kelly, published this month in the American Sociological Review.

As Dominus tells it, the study—Does a Flexibility/Support Organizational Initiative Improve High-Tech Employees’ Well-Being? Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Networkoffers further evidence that employees who are given more control over when and where they work are happier, sleep better and experience less stress than those who aren’t.

Another outcome of the research, Dominus writes: Over a three-year period, employees were less interest in leaving their organizations.

Moen and MIT conducted their research in the technology department of a corporation that chose to remain nameless, dividing half of the employees into a control group that still operated under the company’s usual policy (in which flexibility was at the manager’s discretion) and the other half in an experimental group that were allowed to work where and when they wanted. In the case of the latter, the emphasis was on results, not hours worked.

As Dominus’ story points out, Moen “believes that ‘the mother-may-I approach’ to flexibility — one that relies on manager discretion—holds too many people back from acting on the policy. Instead, she wants to overhaul corporate culture so that flexibility is a living, breathing, vital aspect of work, a default mode rather than a privilege.”

In other words, policy alone isn’t enough for work/life balance to succeed; the corporate culture also needs to transformed.

Besides Moen, the NYTM article also quotes several other experts, including one who emphasizes the need to make any change initiative gender-neutral.

Another source suggests in the piece that “work/life fit” is a better way to describe initiatives than “work/life balance,” because it better “captures how employees are trying to piece the disparate parts of their lives together.” (Dominus notes that both the American Psychological Association and the Society for Human Resource Management have started to use this term.)

Whatever you decide to call it, I think it’s safe to assume employers someday are going to have to figure out the best way to address the issue of employee flexibility in their organizations—and maximize its value. And if we’re to believe what Dominus is suggesting in her story—and what Moen and Kelly are telling us in their research—it may take more than just a policy tweak or two to reap the full rewards of your work/family or work/life efforts.

Should Yelp Have Fired Employee?

There may be a few HR lessons to be learned from the recent media firestorm that’s engulfed Yelp since it fired former employee Talia Ben-Ora after she wrote an open letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman complaining about her low pay.

Ben-Ora, who worked in customer support at Yelp’s Eat24 food-delivery service, said in her letter that the pay she and her co-workers earned simply wasn’t enough to survive in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive regions in the United States. “So here I am, 25-years old, balancing all sorts of debt and trying to pave a life for myself that doesn’t involve crying in the bathtub every week,” she wrote. “Every single one of my co-workers is struggling …. they’re taking side jobs, they’re living at home.”

Shortly after posting the letter on Medium.com, Ben-Ora was fired. She later wrote on Twitter that she was fired because she violated Yelp’s employee code of conduct.

For his part, Stoppelman has denied, via Twitter, that Ben-Ora was fired because of the letter and said he was not personally involved in her termination. He also acknowledged the high cost of living in San Francisco.

When an employee posts an angry diatribe against the company on social media, HR and the CEO need to “take a deep breath,” says employment attorney Erin Dougherty Foley of Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.

“If the conduct was egregious or in some way violated the company’s code of conduct (or other policy), then the company would likely have a defensible reason for making the termination decision,” she says.

In Yelp’s case, there very well may have been other factors involved in the company’s decision to fire Ben-Ora, says Foley. “I get a sense that there’s a back story there.”

However, employers also need to be aware of the risks of firing an employee (particularly with respect to public opinion) in such a public context, even if their reasons for doing so are perfectly valid, says Foley. “Companies should not feel handcuffed by employees engaging in conduct on social media, they just need to ensure that they are considering the conduct both in the context of the risk that it poses to the company (i.e., is another employee being harassed or bullied as a result) or whether the employee is engaging in ‘protected concerted activity’ or just blowing off steam.”

The “concerted protected activity” part can be a bit tricky, as the National Labor Relations Board has ruled in a number of cases that employees were engaging in protected activity when they took to social media to complain about wages and working conditions. “We don’t yet have a lot of clear or consistent direction from the courts or the NLRB on what is, and isn’t, protected activity,” she says.

One of the most important lessons here is that HR needs to ensure that “a robust open-door policy is in place for employees to raise these types of concerns without going to social media,” says Foley. “A real value-added for HR is being the ear to the ground, hearing and addressing these types of concerns before they go to the Internet,” she says. “A culture that fosters this sort of openness will serve the company well in the long run.”

 

Poll: Mindfulness Training Really Works

OK, full disclosure here. A company that provides online mindfulness programs for employers, insurers, wellness companies 166198718 -- meditation2and employee-assistance programs recently announced results of a survey showing mindfulness training improves sleep quality and workplace productivity, and reduces worker stress.

So consider the source, of course. But much like other vendor polls we occasionally report on, this one seems worth sharing. The provider — eMindful, headquartered in Vero Beach, Fla. — analyzed data from 1,200 employees across multiple countries and found a 29-percent reduction in perceived stress among companies offering mindfulness training.

Also, before taking the courses, employees at the responding companies reported losing an estimated 117 minutes of productive time per week. After taking them, that number was reduced to 70 minutes.

Again and mind you, this is one provider’s claim of success, but it does add to the collective wisdom growing rapidly out there that a commitment to workforce-wide mindfulness reaps benefits worth noting, and considering. (This post by me earlier this year features one company’s discoveries along these lines, along with a link to a column by our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett, underscoring the value of workplace mindfulness and the importance of a commitment to it coming from the top and being ingrained into the culture.)

Ruth Q. Wolever, eMindful’s chief scientific officer and associate professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says scientific studies on mindfulness “have burgeoned recently, with demonstrated benefits ranging from decreased stress and anxiety to increased immune-system functioning and pain tolerance.”

“The costs of stress for employers include not only absenteeism and losses in productivity,” she says, “but also include medical costs related to unhealthy behavior patterns [such as alcohol or drug abuse, overeating, smoking and sedentary lifestyles as well as] stressful lifestyles that create and/or exacerbate chronic illness [including hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke].”

Harnett, in her column, corroborates Wolever’s benefits and adds a few more:

“When all is said and done, mind-body programs seem to be at least as effective as lifestyle-management programs and bring benefits such as decreased stress and sleep challenges, and improved cardiac responses to stressful situations.

“Researchers such as RAND Corp.’s Soeren Mattke indicate lifestyle-management programs do not decrease healthcare costs to nearly the same levels as disease-management programs. However, Mattke related on the CoHealth radio show I co-host that employees with chronic health conditions achieve even better results when they participate in both disease- and lifestyle-management initiatives.

“Finally, as Mattke said and I agree, there are other reasons to offer lifestyle-management programs, including mind-body therapies, to your worksite. Mind-body curriculums will most likely please a growing portion of your employee population and improve your workers’ perceptions of the workplace culture. And that may be an employer’s greatest consideration of all.”

Can Abusive Bosses Be Stopped?

In recent years, a lot of oxygen and ink has been used up trying to find a successful way to deal with the damage done by abusive supervisors.

Will giving boorish bosses a taste of their own medicine help them see the error of their ways, or just exacerbate an already tense situation? Is combating bad behavior with kindness the way to go, or does taking that tack only lead to compassionate co-workers being seen as easy marks?

Well, a study that’s set to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that neither strategy is all that effective, and we might need to start looking for a new approach altogether.

Over a six-month period, a team that included researchers from the University of Notre Dame surveyed 244 employees from several organizations about their bosses’ behavior as well as their own.

Not surprisingly, the authors found that simply trying to avoid a superior who engages in offensive behavior—or, conversely, attempting to fight aggression with aggression—did little to discourage an obnoxious supervisor from acting obnoxiously.

Another result, however, seems to “clash with common sense,” Charlice Hurst, assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and co-author of the study, recently told the Washington Post.

The investigators undertook this research with the hypothesis that showing ill-mannered managers empathy and generosity could help curtail their unruly behavior in the future.

But, the survey found abusive bosses “didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful,” according to Hurst.

In the paper, Hurst and colleagues suggest that a churlish manager may simply look at a subordinate’s extra effort—an unsolicited offer to help share the supervisor’s workload, for example—as part of the employee’s job, and thus feels no obligation to treat him or her any differently.

So, offering a helping hand is met with apathy. The passive-aggressive route leads nowhere. Responding in kind only stokes the hostile manager’s fire. What’s an employee (and an employer) to do?

This paper hasn’t exactly answered that question, but Hurst does give some advice on how not to handle such a scenario.

“I think companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied,” she told the Post. “For individuals, you’re only going to make your situation worse if you try to retaliate or try to withdraw or hunker down.”

Naturally. Companies should already be working hard to create and maintain such an environment, and should be encouraging employees to step forward when they’ve been subjected to poor treatment at the hands of a supervisor. And, while this research may not provide a definitive solution to the problem, it certainly offers more evidence of the type of havoc that a belligerent boss can wreak on your organization.

New Hires Face Higher Expectations

If you’re new to an organization, you’d better be prepared to hit the ground running — especially if you’re a college grad. That’s certainly the way it’s been for Ham Serunjogi, who tells Fast Company he was “shocked” at how much was expected of him during his first few days at work.

Serunjogi, a graduate of Grinnell College, started work as an intern at an environmental technology firm in 2013. In his first meeting with the executive director, he was asked whether he’d taken a database class in college. When Serunjogi replied in the affirmative, he recounts, he was told that he would now be overseeing the design and implementation of a new communication database for the organization.

“That was the first time I was ever brought into a project I had little or no knowledge about, and was expected to deliver results,” he said.

This past summer, Serunjogi began an internship at Facebook, where he encountered similar expectations. “Facebook is a very fast-moving culture,” he tells Fast Company. “There’s an expectation that you come in and you learn how to catch up with everyone else, otherwise you’re slowing down the entire organization.”

Technology companies are far from the only ones with such a mindset these days. HRE‘s Talent Management Columnist, Wharton prof Peter Cappelli, has written extensively about the trend in Corporate America to do away with the extensive training programs companies once provided to help new employees develop and acquire skills. Now, he writes, firms expect employees to come “ready made” with the necessary skills via school, college and internships — and if they have trouble finding such people, then it’s evidence of a “talent shortage.”

Yet more evidence of these higher expectations comes via a recent Harris Poll, which finds 27 percent of the 319 executives surveyed said they form an opinion of entry-level employees in less than two weeks and 78 percent decide in less than three months whether or not that person will succeed at the company.

Considering that everyone is now expected to be “an A player” right out of the box, job candidates need to prepare accordingly by interviewing their potential employers as much as they’re interviewing them, Decisions Toolbox chief recruitment officer Nicole Cox tells Fast Company.

Use that time to clarify what will be expected of them, she says. And, “after they’re hired, ask if they’re meeting those expectations.”

One would also hope that employers do their part to clarify expectations — and give new hires the time and support necessary for proving their capability.

The Steep Price of Sleep Deprivation

The conversation around nap rooms in the workplace isn’t exactly a new one.

(For example, you can see just a few of HRE’s contributions to the long-running discussion here, here and, most recently, here.)

The consensus seems to be that nooks around the office where employees can retreat for some (probably much-needed) shuteye will likely remain a dream for many workers. But the effect that sleep deprivation has on the workforce—and on the countless employees who seem to perpetually run on too little rest—is very real.

The Washington Post’s Jena McGregor examined this impact in a recent piece.

For instance, McGregor cited Harvard data demonstrating that, for the average worker, insomnia results in the loss of more than 11 days of productivity each year, equaling $2,280. Add that up across the United States, and the figure comes to $63.2 billion.

Researchers have also found “clear links between poor sleep and reduced quality of life on the job,” wrote McGregor, noting studies that have revealed links between insomniac supervisors and abusive behavior as well as correlations between lack of sleep and medical conditions such as dementia and diabetes.

Employers are noticing these connections as well, and some have taken steps to aid employees in sleeping more and sleeping better, and in turn becoming physically healthier, mentally sharper, and, of course, more productive.

Vendors are helping as well. As McGregor points out, Ceridian has begun to include sleep coaches as part of the wellness packages it offers clients, while sleep diagnostic and treatment company SleepMed has introduced a nationwide health and wellness product that screens employees for sleep disorders and provides access to therapies.

Big Health’s Sleepio at Work program is the latest addition to this market space. Big Health launched the digital sleep improvement program last week, not quite one year after releasing its Sleepio app, which imports sleep data from fitness tracking devices to give users an overview of their sleep profiles, and provides a personalized program of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. The digital provider of personalized behavioral medicine includes organizations such as LinkedIn and Henry Ford Health System on its client roster, and has helped lead employee workshops on sleep at Google, according to the Post.

Ultimately, however, it’s going to take more than technology and workshops to change the “sleep is for losers” mentality that remains prevalent in many organizations, according to Russell Sanna, a former executive director of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.

This mind-set must go, and employers should be helping to see it out the door, he says.

“’Some companies don’t want to be known as sleep-friendly,” Sanna told the Post. “They want to be known as lean and mean.”

Thus far, the conversation about sleep deprivation has been “dominated by sleep scientists and self-help gurus,” he continued. “It needs desperately to have people in the organizational change, workplace advocacy and legal [fields] to help reframe the agenda.”

Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind

When you leave your office at the end of the day, do you mentally leave your work behind?

Probably not.

According to a new CareerBuilder survey, the eight-hour workday may soon become history. More than 1,000 full-time workers nationwide in industries that tend to have more traditional work hours, such as information technology, financial services, sales and professional and business services, participated in the online survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from May 14 to June 3 to discuss their habits and attitudes toward the traditional nine-to-five work day.

More than half – 63 percent – of workers in these industries believe the established nine-to-five routine is outdated and many also have trouble leaving the office mentally. Almost one-quarter (24 percent) check work emails during personal activities with family and friends and 38 percent work beyond office hours. However, most participants – 62 percent – do so out of choice, not pressure or obligation.

“Workers want more flexibility in their schedules, and with improvements in technology that enable employees to check in at any time, from anywhere, it makes sense to allow employees to work outside the traditional nine-to-five schedule,” states Rosemary Haefner, CHRO at CareerBuilder. “. . . If done right, allowing employees more freedom and flexibility with their schedules can improve morale, boost productivity and increase retention rates.”

Gender may also influence work habits. For example, when compared to female workers, male employees are more likely to work outside of office hours (44 percent versus 32 percent); check or respond to work emails outside of work (59 percent versus 42 percent); and check on work activities when socializing with family and friends (30 percent versus 18 percent). However, women are more likely than men to go to bed thinking about work (23 percent versus 16 percent).

But these differences may be easily explained. Who typically prepares most of the meals in your home? Who does the dishes, the laundry, or dusts the furniture? If I’m allowed to guesstimate, more women complete these chores after work than men and don’t have as much time to spend on work activities. But to be fair, more men  probably take out the garbage.

The survey also broke down participant responses into three different age groups: 18- to 24-year-old workers, 45- to 54-year-old employees and those 55-years-old and above. In the first age group, 31 percent reported working outside of office hours compared to 50 percent of the second group and 38 percent of the latter group.

Seventy percent of older workers – ages 55 and above – stay connected to the office by choice compared to 56 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24. However, younger workers in this age group are more likely than their older peers to think about work before going to bed (31 percent versus 11 percent of those ages 55 and above) or wake up thinking about it (59 percent versus 31 percent).

So what do all these numbers mean? The line between people’s work and personal lives are more blurred than ever. If you want to attract and retain the very best talent, offering flexible work schedules, whenever and wherever possible, may be among your best recruiting tactics.

Making Workplace Meditation Work

Mindfulness appears to be alive and well in Fort Collins, Colo. Or at the Fort Collins Housing Authority anyway.

139980668-- meditationJust before the holidays, I came across this release about the FCHA completing a month-long mindfulness program for its staff.  Seems the organization’s top leaders took its annual wellness survey seriously when a common complaint came back suggesting improvements in work/life balance and health and general well-being were needed.

In the words of FCHA Chief Executive Officer Julie Brewen: “We are committed to implementing new programs for the health and well-being of our staff.”

In an industry that deals with tough issues such as poverty, homelessness and families in crisis, she says, the program was a step in the right direction. The program consisted of daily, hour-long sessions during work hours that blended presentations, group discussion and meditation practice.

The results? According to Brewen, lowered stress and depression, and an increase in work/life balance.

What’s even more impressive is what she shared with me just recently, that her organization’s commitment to this lives on, with additional mindfulness training planned for this year, and some added questionnaires and wellness-survey questions designed to keep a close eye on the workplace well-being meter.

“Many of the participants [intend] to continue [their] meditation and mindfulness exercises” into the rest of 2015, she says.

Of course, putting this kind of program together takes a huge and collective commitment to the idea and the practice. It needs to come from the top and be ingrained into the culture, as this column a year ago (to the month) by our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett, suggests.

Her column also suggests the concept could use some booster shots in the business community. “In my experience,” she writes, “most employers pay scant attention to stress and defer to employee-assistance programs as check-the-box solutions — despite poor utilization of this service.”

So what’s it going to take for the Fort Collins approach to become the approach of most? Perhaps when employers start acknowledging they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, even as it relates to your brand and reputation. As Harnett writes:

” … mind-body curriculums will please a growing portion of your employee population and improve your workers’ perceptions of the workplace culture. And that may be an employer’s greatest consideration of all.”