Category Archives: workplace stress

It’s Take Your Dog to Work Day!

Today marks the 18th annual celebration of Take Your Dog To Work Day and, fittingly enough, a new survey sheds (pun clearly intended) some light on the topic to show the benefits reaped by organizations that allow their workers to bring their four-footed friends into the workplace.

Of course, it may seem like a shaggy-dog story to some skeptics (I’m looking at you, cat owners) that bringing your dog to work actually does produce positive workplace effects. But according to this research from Randolph Barker (no joke!), a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University:

“Dogs in the workplace can make a positive difference,” he said. “The differences in perceived stress between days the dog was present [at an office participating in a study] and absent were significant. The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms.”

From the looks of a recent poll, organizations are (slowly) warming to the idea of pet-friendly workplaces: A 2015 Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 8 percent of American workplaces allow employees to bring their furry friends to work, up from 5 percent in 2013.

(And while it may be too late this year, here’s a link to obtain a toolkit to help you set up the event for next year.)

 

Reliably Irrational or Occasionally Unfair?

Being consistent as a boss—even if that means being consistently awful—counts for something with employees.

That seems to be the big message to emerge from recent Michigan State University research.

Published online in February by the Academy of Management Journal, the study determined that employees who see their supervisors as being reliably unfair are happier in their jobs and feel less work-related anxiety than those who view their bosses as unpredictable.

Actually, the team—led by MSU doctoral student Fadel Matta—performed a pair of studies on the way to reaching that conclusion, according to the Washington Post.

In a lab experiment, college students had to estimate a hypothetical company’s stock price, using information about its performance. These participants were told that their peers would be sitting in another room and acting as their supervisors, but they were “actually receiving feedback on the task from the researchers,” the Post reports.

The study authors divided the students—all of whom were having their heart rates monitored in order to gauge their stress levels throughout the experiment—into three groups. Students in one group received input from “supervisors”  such as “thanks for your effort during the last round” or “it’s great to work with a motivated person,” according to the Post. A second group was on the end of a steady stream of negative comments like “it sucks to work with an unmotivated person,” while the third cohort heard mixed messages from their would-be bosses.

Those routinely hearing words of thanks and encouragement demonstrated the least stress. Those who were peppered with put-downs, however, actually fared better than students whose bosses’ feedback wavered between nasty and nice.

In a second study, approximately 100 workers filled out daily surveys throughout a three-week span, answering questions regarding their perceptions of fairness. Participants’ supervisors were polled at the study’s start, in an effort to “measure their capability for self-control,” the Post notes. As was the case in the first experiment, employees with erratic managers experienced greater stress, job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion compared to those who felt they regularly received the short end of the stick from the boss.

These results may stem, in large part, from “this issue of uncertainty,” Matta recently told the Post. “This notion of knowing what to expect—even if it’s bad—is better than not knowing what to expect at work.”

In the Post piece, Matta advises that employers coach wild-card bosses on how to brace workers for bad news that could be coming, as a way to (hopefully) quell employees’ insecurities.

“Sometimes you have to be unfair. There’s only so many resources you can distribute, for instance,” Matta told the paper. “But if you say ‘tomorrow this is going to be happening’—then all of a sudden people aren’t coming in not knowing what to expect. At least that uncertainty is mitigated.”

A Case for Sleeping on the Job

Workplace nap rooms continue to be extremely rare. Indeed, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s just released 2015 Employee Benefits study, about 2 percent of employers report having nap rooms. (And that seems high to me.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean the idea doesn’t have merit, right?

ThinkstockPhotos-483838351Admittedly, nap rooms are never going to gain significant traction in the workplace. Probably not in my lifetime, anyway. Most companies simply aren’t going to buy into the concept. But recent research coming out of the University of Michigan and posted on the online version of the journal Personality and Individual Differences—titled “Napping to Modulate Frustration and Impulsivity: A Pilot Study”could, at the very least, open the eyes of a handful of HR professionals.

Researchers at U-M recently found that napping can be a “cost-effective and easy strategy” that can boost employee productivity and workplace safety.

To arrive at its findings, the study’s authorsJennifer Goldschmied (lead author), Philip Cheng, Kathryn Kemp, Lauren Caccamo, Julia Roberts and Patricia Deldinrecruited 40 individuals, ages 18 to 50, to take part in the research. In a laboratory, the participantswho maintained a consistent sleep schedule for three days leading up to the testcompleted tasks on computers and answered questions about sleepiness, mood and impulsivity.

All were randomly assigned to a 60-minute nap opportunity or no-nap period that involved watching a nature video. Research assistants monitored the participants, who later completed the questionnaires and tasks again.

The researchers found …

“Those who napped spent more time trying to solve a task than the non-nappers who were less willing to endure frustration in order to complete it. In addition, nappers reported feeling less impulsive.

Combined with previous research demonstrating the negative effects of sleep deprivation, results from this latest study indicate that staying awake for an extended period of time hinders people from controlling negative emotional responses … .”

Commenting on the findings, Goldschmied, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, said …

“Our results suggest that napping may be a beneficial intervention for individuals who may be required to remain awake for long periods of time by enhancing the ability to persevere through difficult or frustrating tasks.”

None of this, of course, comes as a huge surprise. I’m sure we all feel a whole lot more functional after a nice nap. Right? But despite this fact, the U-M study and other research that has arrived at similar conclusionsI’ll stick with my earlier prediction that nap rooms and nap times, as a practice, aren’t going to see the light of day anytime soon.

Best and Worst States for Working Moms

To kick off Mother’s Day week (Wait, is my mom the only one who raised her kids believe the holiday was actually an entire week-long celebration?) WalletHub has just released its findings on the best and worst states for working moms.

They analyzed the attractiveness of each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia to a working mother by examining three key dimensions: Child care, Employment opportunities and work/life balance. Data from 12 key metrics — such as median women’s salary, female unemployment rate and daycare-quality rankings — helped determine the list.

According to the rankings, Vermont took the top spot, followed by: Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Washington, North Dakota, Maine, Virginia and Ohio.

Meanwhile, Louisiana took the bottom spot in the rankings, preceded by: South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Georgia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Other key stats include:

  • Day care quality is five times better in New York than in Idaho.
  • Child care costs (adjusted for the median woman’s salary) are two times higher in the District of Columbia than in Tennessee.
  • Pediatric services are 12 times more accessible in Vermont than in New Mexico.
  • The ratio of female to male executives is three times higher in Alabama than in Utah.
  • The percentage of single-mom families in poverty is two times higher in Mississippi than in Alaska.
  • The median women’s salary (adjusted for cost of living) is two times higher in Virginia than in Hawaii.
  • The female unemployment rate is four times higher in Nevada than in North Dakota.

In an a Q&A accompanying the findings, Zachary Schaefer, assistant professor of applied communication studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, says it’s actually getting both easier and more difficult for women to find the right work life balance because they are being put in a “double bind”:

As the number of organizations that offer “work-life” policies continues to increase, the expectations of women to be able to gracefully balance both spheres of their life will also increase. This is an unfair double bind where women are now supposed to be able to raise a family, head the household, and establish a successful career all because organizations now offer telework, more paid time off and flexible work schedules. Men are not faced with this.

So if you’re an HR professional working in an organization in one of the bottom-10 states for working moms, maybe it’s time to start thinking about what you and your organization can do to raise your state’s score.

After all, that’s an effort I’m fairly sure your own mother would be proud of.

To view the full WalletHub results, click here.

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.”

Bound for a Breakdown

burnoutEmployees who describe themselves as perfectionists who take work home with them and can’t bear the thought of being average sound like a manager’s dream, right?

Not necessarily, according to new research that finds employees with such workaholic tendencies may not always work out so well.

In its recent study of 1,385 individuals taking a “Type A Personality Test,” online psychological assessment provider PsychTests found 86 percent of respondents classifying themselves as workaholics saying they push themselves to accomplish their goals. Sixty-five percent of those in this group said they take work home with them, with 63 percent claiming they “hate the idea of being considered an average performer.”

That all sounds fine and good, but there’s a downside to an intensely driven personality that can manifest itself in some nasty ways.

For example, 73 percent of those who consider themselves workaholics said they have trouble unwinding at the end of the day. The same number reported getting angry with themselves when they “don’t finish everything they wanted to do.” (These folks aren’t exactly thrilled with co-workers they see as creating distractions, either, as 68 percent said they “can’t tolerate people who slow them down.”)

In addition, 60 percent said they tend to be overcompetitive and impatient with co-workers. Fifty-eight percent report feeling tense, 49 percent have trouble falling asleep and another 46 percent find their lives are too stressful.

These figures certainly aren’t the first indication that workers who regularly push themselves to extremes may be barreling toward a breakdown—and may end up taking some of their colleagues along for the ride. And, other studies offer evidence that this type of employee often reaches a point where his or her efforts simply become counterproductive.

Just last week, in fact, HRE Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch reported on recent Stanford University research findings that suggest employees working more than 50 hours a week are essentially spinning their wheels soon after hitting the half-century mark.

In that piece, work/life experts urged employers and HR leaders to implement initiatives such as paid-time-off banks and flexible hours for all employees as a way to encourage better work/life balance among the workforce.

While making such options available is certainly a positive first step, PsychTests President Ilona Jerabek advised managers to be a bit more direct in dealing with hard-charging workers who may sometimes need saving from themselves.

“This kind of extreme, ‘Type A’ personality has a shelf life as an employee, as [such an employee] cannot keep up this kind of schedule and work dedication for a sustained period of time,” Jerabek recently told Bloomberg BNA.

“You need to give them permission to take it easy,” she said, “and explicitly tell them to take some time off.”

Starting the Ultimate Conversation

Last holiday season, I posted a piece on this blog about what employers should do when employees come to them with news that 465319021 -- difficult conversationthey are dying. It featured advice from Lynne Curry, president of Anchorage, Alaska-based The Growth Co., who stressed the importance — for employers, and HR and benefits professionals — of going over plans and benefits with any and all employees who come to them with such difficult information.

Recently, it seems, The Dow Chemical Co. took that discussion many steps further by partnering with a company called The Conversation Project. Founded by journalist Ellen Goodman, the project offers a step-by-step guide, called the Conversation Starter Kit, designed to carry managers, HR professionals, family members and loved ones through what I would call the ultimate conversation.

The idea to offer such a project and kit to her employees came to Dr. Cathy Baase, global director of health services at Midland, Mich.-based Dow, when she heard Goodman speak at a health conference about her own experiences as her mother’s caregiver and healthcare decision-maker for many years, and her resulting mission to change the way Americans talk about and deal with death.

As Goodman shared then, had she had conversations with her mother before dementia impaired her ability to share her desires, she might have felt more secure in making the decisions she faced.

Dr. Baase was driven by her own experiences as well, not only in seeing employees through this difficult time, but having engaged her own family to talk early, and often, about their mother’s chronic illness. She and her older sister, a nurse, were the forces behind the bi-weekly and sometimes weekly conference calls they would have with their two younger brothers, committed to staying on the same page about their mother’s care until she passed.

“Having these conversations actually made us closer as a family,” says Dr. Baase. “We knew how things were going and what to expect in the future, and we talked through everything until we came to an agreement. It did make things easier — although these things are never completely easy.”

With the help of The Conversation Project, Dow has begun a focused effort to educate employees and retirees about the merits of getting it all out in the open. Information about the project is now on the Dow internal website and has been distributed at retiree-health fairs.

The company also sponsored two webinars for its employees, retirees and staff, and its magazine, Dow Friends, which reaches more than 50,000 retirees in the United States and Canada, featured an article on the effort. It also shot a video recently for use in meetings and promotions, and plans are under way to hold role-playing events to help people break the ice and initiate these conversations at home.

“If we can help Dow employees be less stressed, more comforted and at peace,” says Dr. Baase, “then that leads to less distraction and a break from worry. … We have a history of confronting challenging problems that affect our society, and end-of-life care is an extension of that.”

Mega kudos to Dow, Dr. Baase and the project.

A Rocky Road to Recovery

Here’s some sobering news going into Labor Day Weekend out of the Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.

459982591Despite the S&P  500 hitting record highs earlier this week, seven in 10 Americans continue to believe the Great Recession’s impact has been permanent, up from half in 2009, when the recession officially ended. This finding, and other equally  gloomy stats, are featured CWD’s latest Work Trends report, released yesterday and appropriately titled Unhappy, Worried and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession. These latest stats are based on a survey, conducted between July 24 and Aug. 3, of 1,153 Americans.

Among the other findings in the report …

  • Most Americans do not think the economy has improved in the last year or that it will in the next.

  • Just one in six Americans believe that job opportunities for the next generation will be better than for theirs; five years ago, four in 10 held that view.

  • Roughly four in five Americans have little or no confidence that the federal government will make progress on the nation’s most important problems over the next year.”

Five years of recovery, sustained job growth and reductions in the number of unemployed workers still hasn’t convinced Americans that the economy is improving, points out Carl Van Horn, a Rutgers professor and co-author of the report.

Only one in three Americans questioned thinks the U.S. economy has gotten better in the last year, one-quarter thinks it will improve next year and just one in six believe that job opportunities will be better for the next generation of American workers, down from four in 10 five years ago, according to Van Horn.

Moreover, the study confirms that the Great Recession took a personal toll on many of the respondents.  Indeed, only one in three of the nation’s 240 million adults reported that they were completely “unscathed” by the recession. Asked to describe, using a list of a dozen words or phrases, today’s typical American worker, just 14 percent checked off happy at work and only 18 percent believe they are well paid. Two-thirds say that American workers are “not secure in their jobs” and “highly stressed.”

Not surprisingly, many of those questions were critical of Washington policymakers, with more disapproving of the job President Obama is doing (46 percent to 54 percent) and even fewer approving of the job Congress is doing (14 percent).

True, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that most Americans aren’t terribly upbeat about the state of things today. Certainly, there has been no shortage of stories in the news these days detailing the plights of many who are struggling. What is surprising, though, is the extent of the level of pessimism cited in the Rutgers report, especially when you factor in the amount of time that has passed since the latest recession was declared officially over.

Taken as a whole, it would suggest that employers and their HR leaders, once back on the jobs next Tuesday, have some serious work ahead when it comes to ensuring that their workforces remain fully engaged and focused.

A Collective Approach to Time Management

time and teamsHow can you get a team to manage its time more efficiently and productively? Give them a time-off goal.

That’s according to Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow, who writes in the June edition of Harvard Business Review (subscription required) about her work introducing time-based interventions at various companies in a range of industries, from consulting to pharmaceuticals. Given the modern workplace’s emphasis on connectivity and collaboration, she writes, the problem isn’t how individual employees manage their time — instead, it’s how employees manage their collective time in working together to get the job done. Often, Perlow writes, teams will — in the course of their work — stick to tried-and-true processes that are inefficient, simply because, well, that’s the way things have always been done.

Perlow cites the example of a large pharmaceutical firm she was advising, in which an “overly collaborative culture” resulted in constant meetings throughout the workday that got in the way of employees getting their work done during regular hours and necessitated them having to take it home or work weekends. The team Perlow was studying at this company decided to rally around the time-off goal of one meeting-free day a week. During that day, the team members worked from home and conference calls and other virtual meetings were banned. The day was a success: saved from constant interruptions as well as commuting time, the team members dubbed it their Enhanced Productivity Day.

The EPD was also effective in that it served as a “forcing mechanism” in getting the team to rethink its need for meetings and their duration, Perlow writes. As a result, meetings became smaller, shorter, more focused and less frequent — and, as the EPD concept spread to other teams in the company, managers reported that employees were more focused and producing higher-quality work.

Team time management can mitigate the problem of overworked and overstressed employees, Perlow writes:

To help workers manage their time, we should stop telling individuals to change themselves and start empowering them to act together to change the way they work. Small steps can make a big difference. By rallying around a modest time-off goal, teams can develop a new capability: managing their time as a team.

 

The Big Stress Disconnect

stressSo you think you know why your employees are stressed? Think again. Strolling past a sea of unhappy faces on the way to your office, you may make a mental note to yourself to review your organization’s work/life policies, or perhaps send out another email blast reminding employees of the employee-assistance program. But, according to a major new survey from Towers Watson, you could be focusing your efforts on the wrong areas.

TW’s 2013/2014 Staying@Work Survey, conducted jointly with the National Business Group on Health, finds that employers rank the top three causes of workplace stress as lack of work/life balance, inadequate staffing and technologies that expand the employee availability during nonwork hours. However, employees rank inadequate staffing, low pay or low pay increases, and unclear or conflicting job expectations as, respectively, the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 top causes of workplace stress. The survey also finds that only 15 percent of employers identify lessening the stress and anxiety of their employees as a top priority for health/productivity improvement.

“Employees seem to be saying, ‘Support me, pay me and direct me,’ but employers are focused on other stress factors,” says Shelly Wolff, senior healthcare consultant at Towers Watson. “Employers that fail to understand employees’ views on stress risk diverting time and resources to fixing the wrong problems and, at the same time, alienating employees.”