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Workplace Stress - Take My Breath Away

If you’re in HR you’re definitely familiar with the effects of stress in the workplace.  We see the outcomes consistently in lost time at work, increased illness and medical costs, employee turnover, inability to attract the best staff, and in some really unfortunate and extreme instances, it can break out as violence.

So I’m always interested when I come across articles and resources suggesting they can help to reduce stress in the workplace.   But lately, I’m beginning to see an imbalance between employer and employee responsibility. The trend seems to be moving away from assisting the employer to be aware of their role in reducing unnecessary stress in the workplace, and placing responsibility for managing what I can only assume is now the accepted inevitability of increasingly stressful workplaces, squarely on the employee.

Here’s the latest   http://blogs.payscale.com/compensation/2010/06/breathing-activities-that-reduce-employee-stress.html?_opt_r=TWITTER&_opt_rdid=1937

Breathing techniques  ... ok.  Typical work weeks have increased with people spending longer hours at the office and even when they do get away they’re often expected to be available 24/7 via their webmail or Blackberry. Vacations are no longer sacrosanct – you need to check in regularly.  Jobs are being “bundled”,  a warm and secure thing to do to a newborn, but in the workplace it refers to combining the responsibilities of several jobs into one unwieldy bundle of joy.  Tighter corporate budgets mean that for some, salaries are not keeping up with inflation, increasing job demands leave less time for that pesky work-life balance we used to talk about, and the response is to teach your employees to  breathe more effectively, or improve their diets, or begin an exercise program.  Sure, these are all very valuable things to do to improve the quality of life, but when they’re being recommended because workplace demands have become unreasonable then they are really more like survival techniques than lifestyle improvements.

Now, I can see breathing techniques as a short-term assist during a peak demand time like fiscal year end, a major project launch, etc., but when belly breathing is expected to mitigate the effects of the stress that comes from unreasonable demands then that’s a little like telling me that wearing a hat is a good way to handle hair loss.  At best, it’s a cover up.  And it will eventually back fire.

An employer I was talking to the other day was surprised and offended that his staff had recently organized a union.  This particular employer had very high expectations for his employees and very low expectations for himself.  So inevitably, something had to give and in spite of his last minute effort to convince staff that he was a changed man, the union was certified.  Now, whether you're a fan of unions or not it's like my mom always used to say “you can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into.”

I think we all agree that a certain amount of stress is normal and will always be part of work life.  And admittedly, I enjoy the adrenalin rush as much as the next guy.  However, when what we really need is a solution that supports ambitious yet realistic work expectations, it’s my opinion that offering staff breathing exercises is letting the employer off the hook for their piece of the action.

In Covey language, it's a simple equation of production vs production capacity.  And if these are truly your most valuable resources then pushing them at peak capacity works for short term sprints, but is not sustainable over the long haul.

If we're not careful, our best performers will use some of those increased fitness and oxygen levels to brush up their resumes, take a deep breath and jog over to another employer.

 





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