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All Stressed Up With No Place to Go

Stressors are different from person to person, and each stressor affects people differently.

14 November 2007
I was speaker at a luncheon last week and the topic was the relationship between motivation and innovation. Afterward, one of the attendees asked if I thought today’s high levels of work stress are reducing our ability to be creative and motivated at work. It’s a completely valid question. As I visit client sites and spend time with audiences across many different industries there is a common and alarming level of stress over work stress.
Stressors are different from person to person, and each stressor affects people differently. So there are lots of reasons people are feeling harassed at work, including too much work as a result of too much downsizing, untalented or egotistical managers, and negative co-workers. When I’m talking with someone and they bring up job stress I always ask what’s stressing them out. And though the list of grievances is fairly diverse, there is one aspect of work that causes more stress than any other, and that’s role ambiguity. If companies want to reduce stress the most important thing they could do is to ensure there is clarity regarding who is supposed to do what, how, and when.
Too many companies put a job description together (half the time they just pulled them from a manual somewhere), slap it into a binder, and never look at it again. Because nobody looks at the job description, nobody knows what training is necessary to be successful at the job. This is true for all jobs. So there's a manager or supervisor who isn't quite sure what their role is, and they hire employees who aren't sure what their roles are. Neither of them receive the training they need, and neither of them really know whether or not they are being successful.
When does the employee or manager get feedback? When they fail to meet expectations (just what WERE those expectations anyway?) or get on someone's nerves. Result? Stressed out people.
Every role should have a job description that serves as the primary information document for the employee about what he or she is expected to do. That means someone has to pay attention to the document, making sure it is always up to date and relevant. This is NOT HRs job! This is each manager's job, and it should be done in collaboration with the employees who are IN the job, to make sure it accurately reflects what they do and what they need to be doing.
There should be specific training for each job description. The training can be classroom training, reading a specific book or article, or chapter in a book, it can be OJT. But what they are supposed to learn and how and from whom should be clear.
Each new employee should be given clear expectations from their very first day. At the last company I was with we conducted new employee reviews at the 30, 60, and 90-day thresholds. Each new employee was given the review document that would be used for his or her reviews on the first day of their new job. This allowed them to see what would be expected, and it took a tremendous amount of stress off the table.
Every employee should spend time on their first day with their supervisor or manager, talking about role expectations and how they are to get the help they need to be successful. If a system like the 30/60/90-day review process is to be used, the scoring approach should be clearly discussed and understood on that first day. It might seem to someone who has not used a process like this that it would be intimidating. In fact, when it's done well, it's incredibly liberating. No guesswork is necessary to find out how they will be successful.
I think the best way to make sure job descriptions are being reviewed and kept up-to-date is once a year at the employees’ annual review. They should be a scheduled part of the discussion, and both employees and supervisors/managers should have meaningful input regarding whether or not the document is accurate or needs to be updated. Of course, it should be possible to update a job description at any time, but at least if it's on a schedule you can be confident that attention will be paid once a year.
If more companies would pay attention to role clarity and preparation for role success, a lot of workplace stress would disappear. And the results of less-stressed-out employees with clear understanding of what they are supposed to be doing would drop straight to the bottom line.


(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill
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