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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
Stress in the workplace

As I was recently going through some old papers, I came across a letter my good friend and fraternity brother, Ron Sparling, and I had sent to the general manager of a General Motors division where another close friend and fraternity brother had worked.

Our brother, Mark Horvath, had died of a heart attack at the age of 39 after nearly a year-long stretch of new, highly stress-related job responsibilities. In our letter, we recognized that a simple cause-and-effect relationship between the stress and his death was, of course, impossible to establish. We also acknowledged that the problem was not unique to his division or to General Motors. We did, however, suggest that stress can affect health in a negative way and asked the general manager to look into that issue and try to reduce the job-related stress in his division.

I don’t think things have changed much over those many years. As a matter of fact, they may have gotten worse, at least in the U.S. That is certainly what I read about and hear from people who currently hold the kinds of jobs I held in those days. Many of my friends and colleagues, especially those in the for-profit world, speak of their 24-7 world where they continually must seek to balance their lives and health with the continually increasing demands put upon them. They speak of walking a razor’s edge between the risks of losing their jobs and of losing their lives and their families.

My guess is that many of you have stressful jobs as part of your Six Sigma effort and as part of your job, in general. And perhaps, some of you unintentionally contribute to the general stress level in your organizations. As we said in our letter those many years ago, people tend to deal with stress in different ways…some of us get headaches, some of us get ulcers, some of us drink too much or take drugs; some of us lose our marriages and friends, and some of us die. Those are not good outcomes for us, personally, or for our organizations.

While the research seems to be sketchy, there is some evidence that some, short-term moderate levels of stress increase (job) performance, but that more stress, especially over time, causes job dissatisfaction, anxiety, irritability, boredom, procrastination, and lower performance (Stephen P. Robbins and Timothy A. Judge, Organizational Behavior, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, N.J.: 2009). These additional outcomes suggest we may want to better control stress on the job and our reactions to it.

Robbins and Judge (2009) recommend clear, achievable goals with a good feedback system on the job to reduce stress. They also suggest providing more employee control with more responsibility, more meaningful work, and more autonomy. They also recommend increased organizational communication, time off such as sabbaticals, and wellness programs. Other writers suggest that asking about employees’ concerns, acknowledging what is learned, and acting to respond to those concerns would be useful (Imre Lövey and Manohar Nadkarni with Eszter Erdėlyi, How Healthy is Your Organization?, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT: 2007). These three authors also tell a fun story about one executive who takes the time to construct brilliant e-mails during his 40-hour week and then saves them to send on the weekend, so he appears to be on the clock 24/7 while committing the weekends to his family.

As I consider telling my own reactions to on-the-job stress, I am reminded that I believe that stress is grounded in some combination of each employee’s world views and the culture of the organization in which he/she operates. Both individual world views and organizational or even departmental cultures are hard to change. To begin with, they are frequently unacknowledged and even unknown. I’m not talking about the values statements on the walls or the perspectives that so glibly roll off our tongues when asked our opinions about something. I’m talking about the deeply held, almost-never-discussed beliefs we hold both individually and as organizations about how the world works. These, I think, are the beliefs that affect stress levels and how we behave.

Now I’m ready to tell you about how I have handled stress as a middle manager in the past. I am fortunate to say this has only happened a few times in my long career. When I have felt stressed, I have taken the additional time necessary to try to figure out the cause. In those days, I did not fully appreciate the power of culture, and frequently made more superficial suggestions about organizational behavior change. Once I had figured out that the organizational behavior was not about to change, I worked to move to another organization, maybe even within the larger company. I was always lucky enough to get out before I got fired. Remember how W. Edwards Deming used to say, “raise your hand three times and you’re a marked man.” I was usually lucky. As I review my career, my timing may have not been so good sometimes. But it all worked out for the better. An organization that creates unhealthy stress in our life does not deserve our effort. Our organizations should bring joy to our lives, as Dr. Deming advocated and as do Lövey, Nadkarni, and Erdėlyi with the subtitle of their book, The Leader’s Guide to Curing Corporate Diseases and Promoting Joyful Cultures.

I hope this month’s column has been, at least, a little useful. Stress is everywhere these days. It need not be part of the workplace. Let’s do something about it. As always, I treasure your comments and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.

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