Sustaining Employee Wellbeing in Stressful Times

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By Roberta Neault

As HR managers, you’re well aware when employees are “stressed” – and you recognize that experiencing stress is not limited to those on the executive team. Have you ever wondered why some individuals seem less bothered by stress while others are de-railed by the tiniest changes?

Some of the difference is likely due to personal style – those with emotions closer to the surface than others (e.g., those with high “N” scores on assessments like the NEO Five Factor Inventory) may be more prone to anxious reactions during stressful times. Some of the difference may also be due to emotional intelligence; the BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory, for example, measures stress tolerance – some people have more of it than others!

For some individuals, life circumstances have lowered their resistance to stress. Numerous stress scales assign points to major life changes – during stressful times such as we are experiencing in the early months of 2009, the global financial crisis may have drastically impacted employees’ personal savings, home equity, access to credit, and interest rates on debt previously incurred. Each one of these changes would earn significant points on a stress scale. However, to further complicate things, the same individuals may be worried about job security, supporting an adult child who has “boomeranged” home while looking for work, and experiencing health issues related to stress, lack of sleep, and working longer hours. The same employees may be facing increased elder-care responsibilities, as senior members of the family are also impacted by the financial crisis. As an HR professional, how can you begin to untangle these issues to support employees through stressful times?

The Occupational Stress Inventory (OSI-R) is a useful tool to help sort out exactly what “I’m so stressed!” means to individual employees. Comprising three questionnaires, it provides standardized scores for several occupational role-related characteristics (i.e., role overload, role insufficiency, role ambiguity, role boundary, responsibility, and physical environment). This helps employees to pinpoint what aspect(s) of their current work roles might be contributing to their feelings of stress. Another short questionnaire considers issues related to personal strain (i.e., vocational stress, psychological strain, interpersonal strain, and physical strain). These two scales, combined, help employees to articulate exactly what is “stressing them out” rather than the more typical generic descriptions of their experience.

In proactively preventing additional stress, and planning solutions for stress that is currently debilitating, it can be very helpful to use precise language. For example, if someone has taken on two additional roles because of layoffs and restructuring, the OSI-R may reveal role overload. It would not make sense to give that individual another project at this point. On the other hand, someone stressed by role ambiguity may be happy to take on another project as long as expectations for his/her contribution are made crystal clear. A high score in role insufficiency, however, indicates a very different problem – this individual is likely bored at work and feeling stressed due to being underutilized. Some employees may be obviously stressed but there is no reasonable work-related expectation. In such cases, it may be a physical challenge or a strained relationship that is impacting their experience of stress. After a longer-than-usual winter on the West Coast, some individuals may be experiencing psychological strain related to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). While in previous years, they may have continued to function despite feeling a bit “down,” the additional stress of the current financial crisis may have made this winter worse than usual.

A third questionnaire on the OSI-R reports personal resources (i.e., recreation, self-care, social support, and rational/cognitive coping). Such resources are essential to consider when trying to sort out why some of your employees are more stressed than others. High personal resources scores can ameliorate the impact of stressors. On the other hand, low scores on this questionnaire can help to explain why seemingly small changes at work can incapacitate some employees.

Related to personal resources is the employee’s overall quality of life. There are several questionnaires that measure such indicators as material and physical wellbeing, relationships, community involvement, job characteristics, and leisure activities. During exceptionally stressful times at work, self-care and personal time can be more important than ever to bolster resilience and mitigate the negative impacts of stress. HR professionals can play a key role in helping employees and their managers understand the many different ways that stress in the workplace is experienced and played out. Interventions that enhance resiliency can serve as buffers when stress threatens to impact productivity and employee engagement just when you need the most from your team.


Roberta Neault, CCC, RRP, Ph.D., is President of Life Strategies Ltd. and editor of the Journal of Employment Counseling. As a counselor-educator, corporate trainer, consultant, author, and international speaker, Roberta inspires individuals and organizations to imagine, achieve, and excel! Her pragmatic approach to wellness, balance, and sustainable people solutions has been embraced on four continents; her work was recognized with the Stu Conger Award for Leadership in Career Counselling and Career Development in Canada.

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