Winter 2004
Stress Busters

The pressure’s on.

Gone are the days when businesses responded to increased workloads by hiring more people. Faced with the need to wring more profit from limited resources, employers are demanding better performance from their already overburdened staffs. Today, everyone’s expected to work smarter and faster. Specialty retail is no exception.

But there’s a downside. Workplace stress is costly. Overworked staffers become uncooperative: they call in sick, miss making the sale, even jump ship for other employers where the atmosphere is more congenial. Managers and retail owners aren’t the only ones who suffer the consequences of a burned-out staff: Customers who are ignored or treated poorly will start buying from your competitors.

“Stress creates a major negative impact on creativity, innovation, and business profits,” says Dr. Richard Hagberg, president of Hagberg Consulting Group (Foster City, CA). “That’s counter to the traditional thinking of many managers. They have the idea that if they pour on the pressure, people perform better. In reality… costly, deep-rooted issues remain unaddressed and take their toll on the bottom line,” he says. The result of all this: your staff will start experiencing more stress than ever before.

And the problem is bound to get worse. What to do? Here’s help from workplace psychologists who offer some nuts-and-bolts techniques.

Spot the vital signs

Before you can cure the disease, you have to spot the symptoms. Dr. Rodney Lowman, professor of organizational psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology (San Diego), points to these common signs:

  • Absenteeism is up.
  • People need more vacation time.
  • Everyone gets more irritable.
  • Comments like “We are so stressed here” become frequent.
  • People show confusion, and make mistakes at tasks they usually perform well.
  • You, yourself, feel stressed. “If the boss is stressed, the whole staff will be,” says Lowman.

Not everyone responds to stress in the same way, though. “People have different ‘preferred reactions’ to stress,” he says. One person may become argumentative or talkative. Another may withdraw and become distant. The trick is to know how each staffer responds. Then if you see several people reacting to stress in their own way, it’s time to be concerned. In addition, some employees will act as “leading indicators” of stress at your location. These staffers are the first to react. When you see them reacting, watch to see if your other employees will, too.

Identify the sources

Once you spot stress, get at what’s causing it. “Stressors can result from a variety of situations,” says Lowman, such as too few employees to handle the workload, a poor supervisor, inadequate training, or conflicts between co-workers. Most often, he says, stressors fall into one of these categories:

  • Role overload: too much to do and too little time to do it in
  • Role conflict: being pulled in different directions
  • Role ambiguity: not having a clearly-defined job

Stress can also come from insecurity about a task that requires new and unproven skills; or working with a boss whose style creates fear, resentment or loss of self-esteem. And it can come from being in a work situation that’s in limbo, like not knowing if you’re going to cut back staff if things are slow. “It’s easier to cope with a known bad thing than an unknown thing that is potentially bad.”

To find out what the specific stressors are, get your people to open up and tell you. In general, encourage them to speak up whenever they feel they’re being overloaded or getting mixed signals about their work roles from managers.

Even better, says Dr. Peter Chang, professor of organizational psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology (Alameda campus), is to schedule regular meetings where staffers can discuss what they do and don’t like about the work environment. “It can make a world of difference to have meetings where people express what is on their minds, and [where] the management does more listening than talking,” says Chang. The trick is to open a valve for people to let off steam. “From the employee’s point of view, what often is most demoralizing is the feeling that nobody knows and nobody cares, and there’s no way to change the system.”

To keep the meetings from deteriorating into gripe sessions, Chang suggests giving anonymous questionnaires to each employee in advance. Ask them to describe the five job tasks they perform most often, the five things they like best, and the five they like least. This saves time and keeps the meeting focused; it lets the staff know that management is interested; and it gets everyone to do some real thinking, he says.

Ideally, the meeting itself should be loosely structured (with you or your manager as moderator—not “parent”), where everyone feels free to say what’s on their minds, using the questionnaire as your meeting guide. Take notes (no names), and follow up no more than a week later with a printout of your “Meeting Report,” which you’ll give to each employee.

But don’t let the matter drop there. Follow up in a week or so with an “action-focused” meeting, says Chang. This time, you’ll report the specific actions and changes you’re implementing as a result of the specific suggestions and comments your staffers had made.

Lighten up

Humor does wonders for reducing stress. “Maybe we can’t control what happens in our workday, but we can control what goes on in our minds,” says David Granirer, a consultant in Vancouver, BC. Studies show that being able to respond with humor restores people’s “cognitive control: the ability to focus on their sphere of influence, and to respond creatively to difficult situations,” he says. By contrast, people who have difficulty coping with stress tend to focus on what they can’t control. Humor helps us abandon self-destructive negative thinking.

How do you encourage humor? One technique, says Granirer, is to have staffers make ridiculous statements that pretend bad things are good. “Humor often involves an attitude reversal,” he says. “A stand-up comic takes something negative and pretend it’s great.” Exaggeration makes it even sillier. “This approach allows people to say things they’re not supposed to [but can], because they’re doing it in a humorous way,” he says. “When people laugh, the stressors become less threatening.” Later, when they deal with the actual situation the reversal was based on, they’ll remember the humorous statement they made or heard, and they’ll lighten up.

Another Granirer technique

Out-complain each other. Give your people two minutes to come up with the worst complaint, and then encourage them to outdo each other. If one comes up with something like, “Mr. So-and-so gave me a headache for three days,” the next one starts with, “Oh yeah? If you think that’s bad… ” to top the other’s complaint. Then the third person tops that. (By the way, you should play, too: it’s good for you, and it’s good for your staff to see you participate.) It’s about exaggeration again. “The very act of trying to out-complain others is so ridiculous that it leads to laughter and makes the very process of complaining absurd,” says Granirer.

Create a positive place

“Workers can create positive or negative cultures,” says Dr. David C. Munz, professor of psychology at Saint Louis University. “When the language used by your staff is positive, affirmative thinking becomes contagious.” Munz suggests encouraging positive language when people communicate with one another, such as “I will,” which is empowering, rather than the passive “I should,” which comes from and creates a sense of guilt or obligation; or the self-limiting “I can’t.”

Going a step further, encourage your staff to create positive “self-talk”—the non-stop chatter in their heads. Turn negative phrases (“That won’t work” or “That was dumb”) into positive solution- oriented messages, like “To make this work, I can [some specific action]… ” It’s a short leap to expressing and then acting on those thoughts, which reduces or prevents stress.

Just as athletes reach new goals by using positive self-talk and imagery, you and your staff can, too. And here’s a bonus: “Thinking positive thoughts is infectious,” says Munz. So “get people to think and talk positively about their work,” and good vibes will spread.

Give staffers some say-so

When staffers have a voice in how they cope with their own job tasks, stress levels decrease, says Hagberg. So let them take control of their jobs where they can. Offer guidance—but don’t “mother” them—in areas such as planning work schedules, deadlines, sales goals, and customer service techniques.

They’ll make better decisions and feel more in control if they understand how their actions support your overall business goals. Of course, this presumes that you have clear goals. If not, get them on paper, and then communicate them to your staff. Why? Because people experience much higher stress—feel “jerked around,” Hagberg says—if the retail owner or manager has poorly defined goals.

Tackle techno-stress

“Plug in, sign on, burn out” could be the mantra of the new millennium. The Information Age brings ongoing rapid change to the workplace, even in specialty retail. Employees—in fact, everyone—are forced to develop coping mechanisms for the increased stress that results from the demand for more productivity from limited resources, including time.

One thing’s certain: we can’t go back. “Today, everything is moving in technology time,” says Hagberg. “People who want things to be the way they were will be frustrated… Handling stress will continue to be a major challenge for every business.” And it will be coming from ever new sources along with the same old ones, like difficult customers, slow sales, inventory snafus, competition—you probably know the list all too well.

Open the door

The open-door policy is a stress-reliever because, done right, it’s a critical valve on the pressure cooker. But saying’s not doing, warns Dr. Allan Rabinowitz, director of Stress Strategies Resources in Los Angeles. While many owners and managers say their door (real or figurative) is open to employees, their style of interacting—including a brusque or dismissive tone of voice—sends the staff a very different, contradictory message. “If your voice is harsh, it causes stress because the staff thinks you’re yelling at them,” he says, sending their creativity, energy and motivation into a nosedive. So either modulate your voice (preferred approach), or let people know you’re not angry with them (a poor second).

Letting staffers know you’re open to feedback can be difficult. It’s often easier to teach employees to manage stress than to teach owners and managers to change their style, says Rabinowitz. “[You] need to move from managing punitively to managing benevolently. Communicate that you’re willing to entertain ways to make the staff’s day easier and less stressful.”

Stretch!

Employers large and small are realizing the importance of exercise and stretching in reducing stress. Says Munz, “We’re always at our best when we’re in motion—we’re more creative, and things don’t bother us as much.” He suggests a brief series of slow stretches. “The idea is to go through the movements that get rid of tensions in the body.” The physical benefits of even a few minutes of stretching are surprising: it makes the individual feel renewed, energized, lighter-spirited—just plain happier. For work-related stress that’s typical of retail situations, stretching is a guaranteed stress-buster. For continuing results, take a stretch break every 60-90 minutes.

“Good” stress?

Is there such a thing as “good stress”? Not really, say the experts. “There’s a misconception that stress is motivational,” says Munz. “But stress is really wear-and-tear on the individual, and there’s no way that can motivate [someone]. What is motivational,” he says, “is the demand of a task, if we see the demand as a challenge.”

Rather than stress, Munz says, staffers need a positively charged, challenging environment… some control over their workday… the tools to get their job tasks done… and the freedom to express some humor. And if you lead by example, the benefits you reap may extend beyond a healthier bottom line.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
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