Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

by Emily Morrow

Reducing workplace stress: What really works?

Clients ask me how to reduce stress in workplaces to minimize the physiological, psychological, emotional, and intellectual dangers that chronic stress exposure entails. In general, there are two approaches to this challenge. One is what I think of as “externally generated articulation of problems and solutions”; the other is “internally generated articulation of problems and solutions.”

Many workshops and articles are available on reducing stress — things such as time management, resilience training, better delegation, enhanced communication, improving collaboration, and work/life balance. They are classic examples of externally generated articulation of the problem and solutions: Someone outside of the organization defines what stress is, what causes it, and how individuals and groups should cope with it.

The primary advantage of such workshops and written pieces is that they are cost-effective and relatively easy for a workplace to offer. However, they typically offer a one-size-fits-all approach. Strategies are not tailored to the unique culture and needs of a particular workplace. The benefits don’t embed because the solutions are externally generated and not aligned with what causes stress in that particular office. The focus is on symptom-management rather than cause-elimination.

At best, these generic workshops offer techniques that can be useful to reduce obvious symptoms. At worst, a workplace can be cynically viewed by its employees as offering lip-service solutions without committing to addressing the underlying causes of stress.

Another externally generated approach is to train selected people to conduct stress management sessions. Then these in-house trainers are encouraged to work with others in the office to enhance stress-management capabilities.

This approach can provide practical suggestions in terms of how to address stressful situations in a seemingly cost-effective way. However, it also provides ready-made approaches that may or may not be appropriate to the needs of a particular workplace.

Externally generated definitions of a problem and ready-made solutions don’t take root in a human system the way that internally generated, tailored ones do.

Here’s what does work: A carefully planned discussion with a highly motivated group focusing on what causes their stress, and how to address that. This approach works because it is internally generated and highly specific. There are no off-the-shelf solutions or inaccurate assumptions. Change invariably occurs when a motivated group of capable people agree about what needs to be done, with a non-negotiable commitment to doing it.

The following structure works well:

• Identify who should participate in the discussion. I ask, “Who is experiencing the greatest chronic stress in your office and not dealing well with it?”

• Interview prospective discussion participants and other thought leaders within the office. I often ask, “What will be important to discuss?” and “What optimal outcomes might there be for the discussion?”

Plan the discussion around:

• What typically causes stress for the group?

• How has the group responded historically to these stressors? What has been helpful or unhelpful in the past?

• What are objectively identifiable symptoms that the stress level is rising? What individual and collective behaviors are associated with this?

• How might the group, individually and collectively, respond differently to the usual stressors?

• What next steps do participants need to commit to, individually and collectively? Who will do what and when?

Outcomes: Discussion outcomes typically include a clearer definition of what creates stress, how it spreads among members of the group, and new approaches to minimize its impact. The result is usually increased insight about how the group functions and a strong commitment to change what is not working well.

A high-quality discussion and proactive follow-up typically correlate with long-term stress reduction and enhanced morale, productivity, and retention rates. This is good not only for your people, but also for your bottom line.

Emily Morrow, JD (, of Shelburne and Auckland, New Zealand, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives, and HR personnel.

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