Six Areas in Which to Improve Workplace Stress
by Laura Churchill

“Workplace stress: it all comes down to six areas of worklife that need to be in balance,” says Dr. Michael Leiter, recently appointed Canada Research Chair, who studies workplace stress at Acadia University. These six areas include workload, sense of community, control, reward, values and fairness.

Statistics Canada has calculated the cost of work time lost to stress at $12 billion a year. This loss is in terms of absenteeism, lost productivity, poor customer service and escalating short and long-term disability claims. The good news is that management can take preventative measures to ensure a healthy work environment.

Leiter, director of the Centre for Organizational Research and Development (COR&D) at Acadia University, says that there are things that management can do to help reduce stress in the workplace. In his book co-authored with Christina Maslach, The Truth About Burnout, he identifies six areas of worklife that need to be in balance in order to help avoid workplace stress and build engagement with work. These factors have been combined to create the Areas of Worklife Survey.

  • Workload - The amount of work to be done in a given time. A manageable workload provides the opportunity to do what one enjoys, to pursue career objectives, and to develop professionally. A crisis in workload is not a matter of simply stretching to meet a new challenge, but of going beyond human limits.

  • Community - The quality of an organization's social environment. People thrive in communities characterized by support, collaboration, and positive feelings. Mismatches occur when there is no sense of positive connection with others at work.

  • Control - The opportunity to make choices and decisions, to solve problems, and to contribute to the fulfilment of responsibilities. A good match occurs when there is a correspondence between control and accountability. A mismatch occurs when people lack sufficient control to fulfil the responsibilities for which they are accountable.

  • Reward – Recognition - financial and social - for contributions on the job. A meaningful reward system acknowledges contributions to work and provides clear indications of what the organization values. People experience a lack of recognition as devaluing their work and themselves.

  • Values - Values are what is important to the organization and to its members. When organizational and personal values are congruent, successes are shared. Mismatches occur when differences exist between an organization's values and the values of its staff, or if the organization does not practice its stated values.

  • Fairness - The extent to which the organization has consistent and equitable rules for everyone. An important element is the extent to which resources are allocated according to generally understood and consistent procedures. Fairness communicates respect for the members of an organization's community. A lack of fairness indicates confusion in an organization's values and in its relationships with people.

When one of these areas is unbalanced, the organization must first determine where the mismatches lie. By conducting surveys, like the ones that Leiter at COR&D specializes in, organizations can determine which areas of worklife need to be changed to have the greatest potential for significantly enhancing engagement with work and reducing workplace stress. Based on this information, a project for change can be established. This project can target one or more of the mismatches found.

The first step towards change needs to be taken by management. “Management cannot directly change an employee’s sense of fairness or endow that individual with a sense of control,” writes Leiter in The Truth About Burnout. “However, management can develop practices – such as supervision skills or safety procedures – that affect the employee’s sense of fairness and control.”

To maximize engagement and prevent burnout, the whole organization must be involved in the intervention project, not just management. According to The Truth About Burnout, “in order for the intervention to be ultimately successful, the larger organization has to buy into it.” All levels of the organization must be committed to making changes. Employees also need to believe that the project really will have an effect on organizational policy. In addition, all employees, regardless of job title or department, need to see how the intervention project is relevant to what they do at work. If they have input, they will be more willing to help implement the project.

One organization in particular was able to successfully implement a project for change. After employees completed the Staff Survey provided by COR&D at Acadia University, it was easy to determine where the mismatches were and what changes needed to be made. In the case of this organization, mismatches were related to fairness, values, and control.

Within this organization, several changes were made with regard to safety. It came out in the survey that employees felt that management did not value safety as a priority. It then became a requirement for supervisors to attend all safety meetings, and they were instructed to take all safety concerns seriously. Besides safety concerns, in the Staff Survey, employees complained that they felt that their manager did not reflect the values of the organization, as he was disrespectful, rude, and untrustworthy. As a result, the manager was replaced.

Two years later, the organization did a follow-up survey to compare results. Definite improvements were made, and fewer mismatches were found. This can be attributed to the fact that the entire organization was involved. Employees felt that their input was valuable and that their concerns were being met.

Implementing a project for change has not only immediate effects, but also long-term benefits. It is important to realize that these changes take time, but it is well worth the time, cost and effort.


Laura Churchill is the Marketing Coordinator for the Centre for Organizational Research and Development, Acadia University. Contact Laura by e-mail: Laura.churchill@acadiau.ca . For additional information visit http://cord.acadiau.ca .

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Copyright 2004 by Laura Churchill. All rights reserved.

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