Three years ago, the high-tech company Cisco Canada began requiring its 1,200 employees to take vacations between Christmas and New Year's.
"With everybody away at the same time, everyone takes their finger off the trigger. It becomes disrespectful to send people e-mails during that time. It stops the stressful cycle," says David Clarkson, director of human resources.
Another HR innovation is that Cisco does not dictate that staff work at the office. This non-requirement has been in effect for five years, and 40 per cent of employees now work from home, at least part of the time.
"Our CFO used to work from home four days a week," Mr. Clarkson says. "It alleviates the stress of driving back and forth every day."
The cost of work time lost in Canada due to stress is estimated by Statistics Canada at $12-billion a year. Stress drives up absenteeism, decreases productivity and diminishes customer service. Yet while progressive companies such as Cisco adjust policies across the workplace in order to alleviate employee stress, many employers leave it up to individual managers or don't address the issue at all.
There's much they could do.
An employer can contribute to a lower stress level among staff by managing his or her own feelings of stress, says Marianna Paulson, a Vancouver stress management coach known as Auntie Stress. "The person who is in charge needs to set a precedent by looking after themselves. They need to learn techniques to manage stress in the moment. Our feelings are felt by other people. If [a manager]is calm around you, you tend to be calmer."
Bosses, she says, need to show faith in their employees and not micro-manage them. That means keeping open lines of communication and giving employees the resources they need.
"It also involves knowing, understanding and showing appreciation for what your employees are going through. If employees feel valued, you'll get more out of them. If they feel appreciated, it lowers their stress," Ms. Paulson says.
Colleen Alexander, a human resources consultant in Bedford, N.S., encourages supervisors to get together with their staff to discuss which of their tasks can be postponed.
"Employees usually know that there's work that they do that's become redundant or is not as much of a priority as it used to be. That way, they can focus on what they do need to do."
It's also crucial that the workload, especially when onerous, is fairly distributed. "The spirit of that approach," Ms. Alexander says, "is to work with the person who already has a full slate – being tasked with things to do that require their subject matter expertise – and determine what kind of tasks can be carved off and given to other employees as a developmental opportunity."
Employers can also ease stress by doing a better job of change management, Ms. Alexander says. A reorganization or downsizing is stressful for employees, but managers make things worse if they fail to help employees understand what is actually driving the changes.
"Really good change management helps people understand why things happen, not just what is happening. They may not necessarily agree with what's going on, but if they understand what's behind it, they may be able to adapt better," she says.
Lynda Miller, CEO of Overloaded Enterprises in Toronto, urges executives to create a "culture of hope and positivity."
How to do that?
"Don't ask for the impossible all the time. Give positive feedback. Recognize and reward people for outstanding work. Listen to what your employees say."
Above all, workplace leaders should avoid being purveyors of doom and gloom. "There's already enough negativity in the daily news, and people are inundated."
Ms. Miller says she hears from employees: "We've got too much to do and not enough time to do it. We're always working in crisis mode. Everything is urgent."
She asks, "Can 100 things be urgent? That's where we have to get common sense back. Be realistic about your capacity. You can't put three days of work into one day."
Steven Appelbaum, a management professor at Concordia University in Montreal, warns that too many employers allow technology to stress their staff. "They take the attitude, 'We've hired this person with a certain set of skills, and we'll get to him when we get to him.' "
But if the boss doesn't use the new hire's skill set right away, he or she will quickly become technologically obsolete. "The question is, what is management doing to keep these people trained with up-to-date skills?" Dr. Appelbaum asks. "Their answer is, it's up to the employee to do that. Well, the employee may not know what's expected of them."
Role ambiguity and role conflict are two other key workplace stressors that demand attention, Dr. Appelbaum says. If what's expected of an employee is unclear, they won't know what to do. And if what's expected conflicts with their own values, like 'cutting corners,' it becomes incredibly stressful.
"The more toxic the individual in a leadership position," Dr. Appelbaum says, "the more probable that the employees' stress level will go off the charts."
To resolve role ambiguity, he says, organizations need an HR department with the authority to clearly define jobs, "so that I know where my job begins and where it ends." If that's not done, employees will battle one another for turf, causing extreme stress. "The HR department in many businesses is looked upon as a joke. It needs to be an integral piece of the culture and the strategy of the organization."
To resolve role conflict, Dr. Appelbaum advises companies to create a vice-president of ethics. "The minute I have a quandary, I [can]deal with the ethics officer," he says.