By Christopher Freeburn
Stress is a fact of daily life, especially for small business owners. Starting your own company and managing its growth forces you to deal with a myriad of never-ending problems, make quick decisions, smooth over employee interactions, deal with customers, suppliers, and business partners-not to mention bankers and insurance companies. Some people thrive on stress, using it as a tool to propel their performance; others find that, over time, it takes a toll on their productivity and erodes their sense of well-being.
The stressed-out workplace
There is no question that stress is a major issue in today's world. Indeed, in 1992, the United Nations declared stress the "20th Century epidemic." In fast-moving modern societies, where every day involves hundreds of complex decisions and constant interruptions, stress-inducing obstacles seem to litter life's landscape. But nowhere is the rise in stress more evident than in the American workplace, where stress-induced health issues, absenteeism, employee turnover, and lower productivity cost our economy an estimated $300 million a year. On average, according to data from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, adults in the United States work longer hours and take less vacation than workers in any other industrialized nation. Perhaps then, it's no surprise that a recent study of 2,500 American workers by CareerBuilder.com found that more than three out of four-77 percent-feel overworked and burned-out at their jobs.
Entrepreneurs, however, often carry a much heavier burden than the average worker. Pouring all of their passion into keeping a small company afloat amidst extremely challenging economic conditions, small business owners often pay an exceptionally high price in terms of stress. In fact, a Brother Small Business Survey from this past March found that more than half-51 percent-of small business owners reported their stress level as either higher than usual or the highest it's ever been. And nearly half-48 percent-acknowledged that they think about their business even while trying to fall asleep at night.
Causes of stress at work
Technology-much of it meant to reduce labor-has actually increased the amount of work we can do and, thereby, added additional stress. "Computers and cell phones and email all increased productivity," says Dave Bowman, a human resource expert at TTG Consultants, "but this also means you can do more work in a day, and that you end up expecting to get more work done every day."
Bowman also says that the combination of the deep recession and the highly competitive business environment has exacerbated this problem. "Companies are paring down their workforces to remain competitive, even as they increase the demands on their employees," he explains, noting that job stress is rising at all levels of the workforce. "It's not just the middle manager, or the executive vice president that feels stressed," he adds, "even production line workers and clerical staffs feel it too." Business owners under the strain of stress can lash out at their employees, become overbearing, or even create a hostile workplace, making them ripe for a lawsuit.
Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder explains that our society's connectedness also makes it harder to shut out stress from work once we go home. "The lines between work and life can be very blurry these days-17 percent of workers said they feel like their work day never ends because of technology connecting them to the office," she noted recently in another CareerBuilder worker survey from last year. "To reduce burnout and avoid potentially risky behavior, workers should allot technology-free time when away from work."
Dealing with workplace stress
All this stress-whether it's weighing on your shoulders or your employees-can cost a business significant profits, something that most companies now realize, according to Barry Hall, principal at Buck Consultants. "Employers increasingly realize they must address the rising tide of employee stress, and not just to improve employees' well-being," noted Hall in a recent "Stress in the Workplace" study. "Those who ignore stress will take a hit to their bottom line, in higher costs and lower productivity." As a result of this awareness, two-thirds of the more than 200 companies participating in the survey have implemented four or more strategies to mitigate workplace stress. (For more on this survey, go to http://news.xerox.com/pr/xerox/Buck-Consultants-A-Xerox-Company-Stress-in-Workplace-Survey-161678.aspx.) Below, are a number of these stress-busting tactics, plus a few others, that your small company can employ to avoid burning out your employees and yourself.
Employee assistance programs
Implemented by 78 percent of businesses in the Buck Consultants survey, employee assistance programs (EAP) are a very popular stress mitigation tactic. As something of a catch-all wellness benefit, EAPs offers workers the resources to deal with a wide range of personal issues before they begin to undermine work performance. (For more info on EAPs, check out http://ncadi.samhsa.gov/govpubs/workit/ts8.aspx, or to find a directory of certified EAP providers near you, go to http://www.eapassn.org/.) Studies of some large corporations have found that they experienced less absenteeism, lower medical claims, increased productivity, and a reduced rate of employee lawsuits after implementing EAPs. But entrepreneurs shouldn't dismiss EAPs as only something big businesses offer; many small companies have banded together into consortiums in order to offer EAP services at a cost of between $10 and $25 per employee.
Better time and resource management - A considerable amount of office stress results from poor time management, with too much time devoted to less important issues and not enough devoted to critical projects with impending deadlines. A better, more productive method, one that also accommodates the increased family responsibilities facing many employees and employers, might be to institute flexible work hours or even telecommuting at your business. This tactic is also an increasingly popular way for employers to minimize the stress from tight cash flow and avoid layoffs. In fact, last summer, a Monster Meter poll found that 55% of U.S. workers experienced flexible hours.
Take that vacation - Work is a critical part of most Americans' daily lives, particularly small business owners, who have often staked their personal energies and their financial futures on the success of their startups. Though working long hours, often seven days a week, and refusing to take any time off is common among entrepreneurs trying to make that first profitable dollar, no business owner can (or should) be all work, all the time. Nor should they expect their employees to be, either. In fact, some health surveys, like the Framingham Heart Study, have found a high correlation between people who rarely take vacation and their likelihood of suffering a heart attack. As a result, some businesses have begun offering three weeks or more of annual vacation time as a way to keep health costs low, improve morale, and prevent burnout from affecting productivity. Brian Scudamore, the CEO and founder of 1-800-GOT JUNK, who started his business at age 18 with just one truck, now gives staffers at the company's corporate offices five weeks of vacation a year after only two years on the job. There is one catch, though-they have to take time off for two consecutive weeks. "Extra vacation time helps prevent burnout," he explained in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America, adding, "which can lead to losing employees-a very high price to pay."
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