The Vital Corporation
July 23rd, 2024     

In today's workplace ... It's not the stress. It's the disengagement

… three strategic steps to revitalize today’s workplace

Richard Earle, Ph.D., Principal, Vital Corporation
Chairman, Canadian Institute of Stress & Hans Selye Foundation


 Our Institute’s distance education programs certify seasoned professionals internationally as corporate stress & wellness consultants. Foremost amongst their motivations is to learn new strategies for controlling workplace stress and employee disengagement … because the old solutions clearly aren’t working.

Three steps in these students’ success, as I’ll summarize in this article, are learning how to (1) more accurately define and (2) more practically understand the “real” human and productivity challenges that underlie today’s so-called workplace “stress” epidemic. And then (3) how to strategically reverse the underlying dis-engagement … a precondition to renewing corporate vitality.

Step #1 – Target the most pressing costs … accurately

 While stress may be a key problem-driver in today’s workplace, it is not the problem. A veteran HR vice president, getting past the “stress” label, targeted her most pressing challenges this way, “What it’s really all about is three things. First, the stress leaves just keep on coming. Second, the work is not getting done … at least, not the way it should. And, what worries me most, two of our best people just got fed up and flat out resigned”.

In short, to solve it as a very human business problem, “stress” should focus our attention on these toxic wastes … (1) disabilities, (2) deteriorating work performance, and (3) turnover. At the Institute, we summarize these three as “D.D.T.”, the toxic signs of the dis-engagement which has gradually seeped through many workplaces in the past decade. This insidious, gradual pattern is probably familiar to you. For many corporations, it’s become death by a thousand cuts.

Can courses on stress management or work~life balance reverse dis-engagement’s downward spiral? Not a chance. One frontline airline manager put it this way, “Maybe learning to control your heart rate, or visualizing your way through the next disaster appeals to some. To me it’s a joke …Sure, a lot [of employees] attend the workshops. They clearly want something. But, these so-called solutions don’t show up in how my people are doing their work.”.

Sensing that the old solutions don’t work, many employers are now simply giving up on “the stress problem”. Findings in a recent Canada-wide survey show that while 64% of employers see stress as their #1 workforce threat, only half (32%) are any longer giving priority to solving it. Analyze that.

Step #2 – Understand how dis-engagement actually works

So, dis-gagement feeds itself, becoming more pervasive and more corrosive. In the past decade, stress disability claims doubled, rising from 25 to more than 54% of total workplace disabilities. According to a 2004 Towers Perrin survey, the percentage of employees who no longer believe their employer tells them the truth about the company’s financial status or strategy has now grown to over 50%. And, the WorkTrends 2004 U.S. results show that those “ready to leave”, based on overtime hours’ dwarfing prospects for better wages & benefits, have steadily grown in number over the past four years.

The Canadian Institute of Stress (CIS) has 25 years’ in-the-trenches understanding of what’s really driving this dis-engagement. While employee “stress” and “wellness” levels do play a role, addressing these factors alone produces marginal and short-lived results in disabilities, in client service, or in retention of talent. As shown here, other drivers are typically in play …

Stress, by itself, is not the problem. Our research shows that elevated “chronic stress” levels in workers increase the risk of stress-based disability by only a modest factor of 35% as compared to a normally stressed workforce. More to the point, when higher stress is accompanied either by decreased “work satisfaction” or by decreased “work engagement” amongst employees, then the risks of stress disability rise by factors of 108% and 152%, respectively … with similar degrading impacts on the work getting done and on turnover of key staff.

Step #3 – First, help the walking wounded. Then, roll back dis-engagement in work teams

 Help the walking wounded to help themselves. Between 15 and 20% of employees today qualify as “walking wounded”. While present on the job, their health, performance and work engagement have been eroded by the toxic cocktail of too much stress plus too little satisfaction for too long. Of these, 30% eventually come forward for help from their HR rep or EAP. Unfortunately, for stigma and related reasons, the remaining 70% suffer (and under-perform) in silence. Slowly wearing out for two to five years in an increasingly toxic state, they suddenly take early retirement, go on long term disability, just resign, launch an employment standards law suit, or they’re fired.

Since most managers understandably prefer to avoid dealing with employees’ personal or coping issues, and since the 70% don’t want to risk being seen as weak by asking for help, what can you do? Can you actually “market” self-management training and coaching or the EAP more successfully? You bet you can.

Relying on (a) a motivating “from stress to wellness” lunch-and-learn, plus (b) the power of the internet to then confidentially tailor personalized “pull marketing” messages to each employee, you can dramatically increase the likelihood of walking wounded employees’ seeking help. Here are the step-by-step personalized messages these employees need to buy into, then act on …

  • That’s a relief. Everyone has some stress issues. I thought it was only me.
  • I’d like to know how my situation / lifestyle compares.
  • I need to find out more about these two concerns I have [work or personal].
  • I can now see clearly how I’m hurting … and how I could be feeling / doing better.
  • These are the steps I now believe can work for me.
  • This is the action plan I personally see as motivating and achievable.
  • I now know about several resources I can comfortably call on … so I will.

The key is to help each of the walking wounded to own and then connect their specific “pain” to solution steps which are personalized, simple and confidential. Working with a large newspaper chain, the Institute improved earlier and more constructive EAP utilization by 32% within three months. Long term disability cases dropped accordingly by year end.

Roll back team dis-engagement. Having taken action to reduce the walking wounded numbers, what can you do to prevent others’ taking their place in this toxic pipeline? … to actually reverse the dis-engagement, the root cause, in the workplace?

“This is a good place to work” or “It’s a sweatshop” are very subjective … mindsets largely determined by a work team’s culture, less so by the “facts”.

So, while reducing toxic risks in a team is, to be sure, about maintaining “good” working conditions, it is as much about fostering a team mindset and culture in which the core belief is, “This place isn’t perfect but, by and large, it responds well to our needs and ideas … especially about the stress and satisfactions we have in our work”.

Extensive research at the Canadian Institute of Stress shows that a simple employee-driven method we call “win~win problem solving”, built into routine team operations, is highly effective in creating and, then, protecting this “good place to work” mindset.

As today’s workplaces change more rapidly and become more demanding, lose~lose problems can grow like viruses in an unprotected computer … causing lose’s for employees’ stress and satisfaction levels and, simultaneously, lose’s for the productivity, quality, etc. aims of the employer. And, because employees often neither care nor dare, or have the time to report, “We have a problem”, these lose~lose problems quickly compound into toxic wastes for the business.

Here’s one of several thousand lose~lose’s I’ve seen employees identify and then solve. Over 1200 customer service reps at the headquarters of a large financial services company, who often were busy on several phones at once, were now asked to log and profile every call in terms of seven call factors. They felt that this additional distracting work, while keeping customers on-hold, not only added more stress but also drained their satisfaction in trying to give top notch service. The full lose~lose showed up when they confessed that more often than not, they just invented the seven-factor data at the end of the day. Ouch! Employees’ win~win proposal was simply to profile only 20% of the calls … a real cost saving which not only gave the company truly representative data about customers but also fell within the employees’ view of reasonable daily stress. As we phased in several such win~win employee proposals, employees began to re-engage with their work.

While previously jaded employees are often initially skeptical about win~win problem solving, the benefits for their stress and satisfaction levels quickly win them over. Unlike other business process improvement methods, win~win problem solving not only produces significant cost savings, it also explicitly places equal value on employees’ feelings about their work, and on their insights about how it should be managed. As one airline reservations agent said to me, “Finally, they’re respecting that I know my job and my customers better than they do”.

Reflecting employees’ more positive mindset, indicators we’ve tracked have shown 32% and 38% improvements in measures of stress and of work satisfaction respectively, plus a 62% gain on the key “engagement” factor … the 180 o opposite of toxicity. As for the several other D.D.T. indicators, the Institute has observed 7% and 13% gains in reliable measures of productivity and quality-of-service, respectively, in telephone operators, plus a 52% reduction in their disability days.

“It’s not rocket surgery” , as Yogi Berra might say. (1) Target the problem for what it is. It’s not the “stress”, it’s the toxic wastes arising from disengagement, which commonly also include fraud, theft and lying to customers. (2) Understand where toxic disengagement is really coming from. And then (3) tackle the truly pressing business-case lose~lose’s which, in most workplaces, stem from (a) under-performance by the walking wounded, and (b) the “going from bad to worse” mindset in toxic dis-engaged work teams.

The old solutions to workplace stress have had limited success because they focused primarily on reducing employee distress problems, with the collateral belief that this would somehow (?) improve business results.

We now know that a more balanced win~win strategy is essential, integrating heart-and-head aims. The tipping point in that balance is to focus directly on how dis-engagement drives the toxic wastes in the workplace, where human pain and costs to business intersect. The results, as I’ve reported above, are solid and, I hope, inspiring for you.

Contact: Richard Earle, Ph.D. (416) 237-1828 direct line

©2010 Vital Corporation, Inc.