Whether it is work, personal, family or friends there are so many different areas of our life where stress can creep in. The reality of this question is that only one in four people will say they are not stressed. In preparing for a presentation to the IFMA World Workplace conference, EUA launched a 3rd party survey to gather input from over 500 employed people across the US. The study examined employee satisfaction levels in relation to their work environment as well as how they viewed their work-related stress levels. Our survey found that 75% of respondents reported moderate to high work-related stress levels. We correlated stress levels to those who check emails and perform tasks outside of normal work hours (moderate) to those who stay late and work outside of normal working hours regularly to keep up with the business demands (high).
The rampant spread of stress in relation to work, specifically, Burnout Syndrome, is a serious issue that is being more openly discussed around the world. Earlier this year the World Health Organization (WHO) identified Burnout Syndrome as an occupational phenomenon in the international classification of diseases. The WHO describes Burnout Syndrome as feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, lack of engagement in one's job and reduced efficacy or accomplishment.
What Does the Work Environment Have to Do with Stress?
The physical environment can play a large role in our daily work experience. The workplace is a place for focus, a place for collaboration and place to get stuff done and move business forward. However, the physical work environment can be so much more than that – it can be a place where trust is built, ideas are shared and innovation blooms. Hearing the 2018 Gallup survey that identified 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work makes me wonder, what role does the physical space play in this and could Burnout Syndrome be another ingredient in the discouraging topic of stress.
When developing a workplace strategy for our clients; it involves gaining an understanding of an organizations' business objectives while aligning with their people, place and technology; where the people side of the equation is the unique cultural attributes of that organization. We have identified five drivers to an engaged workplace that have positive impacts to employee engagement. When developing a strategy with a client, we leverage these elements in our work environment survey and can quickly identify opportunities for work environment improvement.
When I started digging into the data for this survey, I began looking at the people with the highest work-related stress and I wanted to know, are there any correlations between those who are experiencing high stress and their dissatisfaction with their work environment? What I found in the study was that three of the drivers [Safety + Security, Knowledge Sharing and Well-Being] hold some great opportunities for addressing potential stressors in the workplace that we may not already consider today.
Safety + Security
When we say Safety + Security we are talking about more than just physical security, we are looking at psychological security as well. Looking at individuals who reported the highest level of stress, 30% identified that they did not have the right amount of distraction-free spaces in their work environment. This made me cringe, because many recent studies and articles have come out slamming the open work environment and when I saw a correlation between high stress and distraction-free spaces in our data, it was concerning. But I firmly believe that in the quest for focus within an open office environment, our biggest enemy isn’t the nature of the physical space, but the culture that inhabits that space.
Wait, what was that? The culture you say? Why yes!
As an example, a client we recently observed was accustomed to high-walled cubicles with private offices, and a culture of regular 2-person, impromptu meetings at their desks, at the copier, in the hallway and everywhere else in-between. The irony of all these spontaneous meetings is that during our observation period, most conference rooms sat vacant for major blocks of time; yet, in focus group conversations, many felt there was a shortage of conference rooms.
As we transitioned them to their desired future space, we worked with their management team to have Radical Candor with their teams around behaviors in their current work environment and acceptable behaviors in their new work environment. One of the key areas we focused on: if collaboration continues to happen everywhere, in a more open workspace, how could they signal their focus needs? Thinking back to those articles on the open work environment, I wonder, were behavior shifts in the work environment ever discussed? We are, after all, creatures of habit and unless we can talk openly with one another about new ways of work to best support new work settings… I can see how the open office can fail. But with this knowledge and a little radical candor, we can help our teams overcome those hurdles head on.
Companies in the Fortune 500 still lose a combined $31.5 billion per year from employees failing to share knowledge effectively. By trying to recreate the wheel, repeating others’ mistakes or wasting time searching for specialized information or expertise, employees incur productivity costs and opportunity costs for the organization. My stress level goes up just thinking about my own precious time and the time loss due to miscommunication or lack of communication.
When we think of knowledge sharing and the physical or technological ways to support collaboration, we look at a few specific elements. One is mobility within the workplace. Is there a technological and/or policy support for work anywhere, anytime capabilities? Do teams and individuals have the proper adjacencies to support efficient workflow? Do employees have spaces or places that support their interactions and collaboration?
In the case of Workiva, a client services and software development company we recently completed a project for; they set out to increase the collaboration between their departments and teams and enhance company culture. Every department had a variation on how they work and collaboration needs, which resulted in ‘ideal scenarios’ and space strategies for their teams. In the case of IT, as an example; they have formal, just-in-time and casual meeting settings to support their way of work. By fully aligning the people, place and technology, design solutions are better positioned to meet the needs of departments, thereby decreasing a potential stressor within the work environment.
When I looked at the moderate to highly stressed respondents of our survey, nearly 40% were dissatisfied with their workplace amenities. Amenities mean different things to different organizations, and I want to be clear, I don't think that going amenity crazy is the solution. Taking a deeper look at access, is what is key.
The key ingredient in workplace amenities, is to consider your employee population and find the right cultural alignment to an amenity offering, asking what amenities allow your individuals to bring their whole self to the workplace. In our survey, of those who identified themselves as low-stress, 90% ranked their work environment as enabling them to bring their whole self to the workplace. For instance, in a recent study that looked at why women leave the field of engineering, one of the key findings included poor working conditions with an inflexible or demanding work environment that made work-family balance difficult. By integrating simple nods through the physical and technological space, we can help support women returning to work after a maternity leave. Showing that we care, is a way to support their whole self-coming to work.
Workplace design and amenity infusion is not a quick fix. You can provide employees with spaces like nap pods, work cafes, outdoor areas for conference calls or spacious terraces to get away; but if you don't give them the permission, demonstrate their importance or have leadership model behavior on their use, they won't be adopted. It goes back to having the proper alignment between the culture (your people) the place and your technology for individuals to truly thrive.
How can you start making a change?
I challenge you to continue to ask yourself, what is your stress level? Are you witnessing stress in others around you during the workday? Are there things within your control that you can do to help create a positive work atmosphere? For those of us that are involved in creating environments for our people, we need to start understanding cultural norms and how they are impacting our workers daily. Once we build this understanding, we can chart a course for the future. If we want a change to be made, we need to practice what we preach, to help with authentic adoption of new cultural norms and ultimately built solutions that help reduce stress where and when we can. Want to chat about your workplace stressors? I’d love to connect. For a free assessment of your workplace send me a message, shoot me an email or give me a call at 414.291.8143.
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This article was originally featured by Work Design Magazine.
Heather Turner Loth