Fortunately, headline-making instances of deadly violence are a rare consequence of workplace stress. More often, it simmers just beneath the surface, covertly eating away at morale, productivity and profits. And if you think that workplace stress doesn’t exist in your restaurant, think again.
“Emotional pain exists in every organization at some point and it takes a heavy toll,” says Peter. Frost, professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia. “Too frequently, employees have negative experiences in the workplace that leave hopes dashed, goals derailed, or confidence undermined.”
Frost says individual employees or managers often step into emotionally poisoned work situations to help deal with the pain involved. These “toxic handlers,” as he calls them, frequently suffer more emotional and physical damage than the people they are trying to help.
“Sometimes, the major ‘toxic handler’ is the owner or manager,” says Frost, “and that can mean serious damage to both the organization and the individual.”
• What is workplace stress?
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “Job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), offers this definition: "Workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands.”
• How do I know if someone is (or if I am) having trouble coping with stress?
According to CMHA, many different symptoms may indicate difficulty coping with workplace stress:
Physical signs include headaches, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, chest pain, shortness of breath, pounding heart, high blood pressure, muscle aches, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, increased perspiration, fatigue, insomnia and frequent illness.
Psychosocial cues include anxiety, irritability, sadness, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, hypersensitivity, apathy, depression, slowed thinking or racing thoughts and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or of being trapped/
Among behavioral signs are overeating or loss of appetite, impatience, quickness to argue, procrastination, increased use of alcohol or drugs, increased smoking, withdrawal or isolation from others, neglect of responsibility, poor job performance, poor personal hygiene, changes in religious practices and changes in close family relationships.
Regardless of the symptoms, or lack of them, workplace stress, if left untended, eventually can lead to employee turnover, reduced efficiency, illness and even death. Absenteeism, illness, alcoholism, petty internal politics, bad or snap decisions, indifference and apathy, lack of motivation or creativity are all visible by-products of an overstressed workplace.
• What causes job stress?
Most experts agree that stress on the job results from the relationship between the worker and working conditions. However, opinions differ as to which of those two factors are the primary cause of workplace stress. One school of thought suggests that personality characteristics and the ability of the worker to cope are the primary factors that determine whether conditions on the job will result in workplace stress. In other words, conditions that are stressful for one chef or server may not pose a problem for someone else.
Personality differences aside, most scientific studies suggest that some common working conditions will be stressful to most people. Such things as the imposition of unreasonable workloads, uneven or biased treatment by managers and lack of control over working conditions are certain to cause workplace stress, according to some experts. Supporters of this viewpoint argue that improved working conditions and more attention to job design are the most important ways to minimize job stress.
While these opposing viewpoints may suggest different ways to prevent stress in your workplace, Frost advises use of techniques to minimize the harm of workplace stress that are applicable no matter what the cause:
1. Slow down. Most of us are going too fast to notice pain in others. The pain caused by workplace stress presents itself at a slower rate or with a different cadence than does the technical work we do or the schedule we pursue to make the business successful. As a result, we blow right by the pain, unaware that it exists.
2. Listen. Managers often can't hear the pain in others because they are too busy telling them how they would solve the problem. Effective toxic handlers put their full attention on the person in pain.
3. Retain your sensitivity. Too often, managers miss the pain in others because they have become numbed by the pace of the competitive restaurant business. Effective toxic handlers are sensitive to how they and others are feeling.
4. Be confident. Even if we see and feel the pain of workplace stress in others, we may feel that we don't know what to do about it. Remember that simply being present for someone can help the healing process. You don’t have to be an expert.
5. Take action. If there is a cancer in the system in the form of a toxic-generating employee, get rid of it.
6. Put people first. Look out for the toxic company policy or practice based solely on numbers and abstractions that overlook the human equation.
7. Plant seeds. When you see pain on the horizon (it's going to arrive whenever change occurs) find ways ahead of time to prepare people to deal with it.
How to protect yourself
Of course, some stress in the workplace is normal. By one definition, stress is the factor that provides us with the energy and motivation needed to stay creative and productive.
However, as with most things in life, too much stress can have extremely negative consequences. When workplace stress rises to the point where damage is being done, someone in the organization usually surfaces as the “toxic handler.” While it may be anyone in the organization, very often it will be the “boss.” Whether it’s you or someone else, Frost offers these suggestions for avoiding harm to the person trying to help:
Seven ways for toxic handlers to protect themselves:
1. Learn to leave it at work. Don't take the pain and other people's problems home with you.
2. Stay fit. That way you keep the toxicity out of your own system, and you drain the physical effects out through your exercise.
3. Stay positive. Stay aware that you are helping others. Feel good about what you are doing.
4. Say “no” more often. You don't have to take on every case. And don't take on the problems of those you are healing.
5. Create a sanctuary...and use it frequently.
6. Give the job a name. This is meaningful work. It is about handling other people's pain and toxic emotions.
7. Tell your own that you love them. Don't let this work cut you off from your partner, your family, or your close friends.
“We live in times where there is much pain and suffering in and around organizations," Frost says. While we can’t avoid stress and pain in the workplace—what we can and must do is find better ways to manage it.
“There is still much to be learned about toxicity in organizations and how to handle it. But my vision is for managers and their organizations to take up the challenge to safeguard the health and well-being of their people, and to offer compassion to those who hurt – an effort that is both a noble undertaking and eminently practical.”
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, these are job conditions that may lead to workplace stress:
• The design of tasks. Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours, and hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills and provide little sense of control.
• Management style. Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.
• Interpersonal relationships. Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors.
• Work roles. Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too many "hats to wear."
• Career concerns. Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.
• Environmental conditions. Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution or ergonomic problems.