Managing Individual Cases of Stress in the Workplace

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Every day, front-line managers interact with a variety of individuals who are under varying degrees of occupational stress. This lesson provides practical tools and identifies potential pitfalls for managers dealing with individual cases of stress.

Getting Fired and Supported at the Same Time

An experienced executive once related to a story that demonstrated how managers can simultaneously support and discipline employees during periods of occupational stress. In the narrative, a front-line manager in the organization was suspected of coming to work under the influence of alcohol. A for-cause drug screen confirmed the impairment.

The manager-turned-executive described how the situation came to a close, and the ending might surprise you. The employee was indeed terminated for violating the organization's policies regarding impairment at work. However, the organization referred the individual to counseling and inpatient rehabilitation at the company's expense.

This case in its outcome are a great introduction to managing occupational stress in specific situations, and it demonstrates that good leaders can balance empathy and enforcement at the same time.

On any given day, front line managers interact with dozens of cases of individual employee stress.

Specific Techniques for Managing Individual Cases of Occupational Stress

Privacy Considerations & Management Involvement

In the case example above, privacy was a central issue. On the one hand, the organization doesn't want to waste money on treatment that isn't wanted. Naturally, the organization would have an interest in knowing whether the employee actually took advantage of the offered rehab program or not. On the other hand, mental health records, which include substance abuse notes, are confidential in almost every capacity.

When managers deal with individual cases of occupational stress, they should be conscientious of the procedures regarding access to support systems. Employee assistance programs, or EAPs, are formal support networks that provide help to people facing a variety of issues, including substance abuse. Employers have a legitimate interest in knowing when employees are taking advantage of the services, but they do not have a legitimate interest in knowing the specific individuals or details.

For this reason, when managing individual cases of workplace stress, managers should be cautious not to disclose confidential information to others in the company. They should also consider the use of a non-identifying strategy in which the organization can examine important information without being able to immediately link it back to a specific employee or situation.

Goals & Follow-Up

One of the worst things a supervisor can do after investing time in managing cases of occupational stress is to walk away from the situation and never consider it again. Front-line managers must always follow up with employees when a workplace stress concern has escalated to the point of intervention.

This type of follow-up is not an ad hoc nature. Rather, it should be a follow-up towards the specific goals that an employee must reach before being able to return to work. In the case study of the impaired employee, if the organization had not terminated the employee, the supervisor involved would have had a duty to create specific goals and to make the attainment of those goals a prerequisite for returning to work. The necessary follow-up between the employee and the supervisor would be to gauge progress toward those goals.

When good employees are overcome by occupational stress, managers must lay out fair but firm requirements for returning to duty.

The Role of Discipline

You'll notice that in the case study the employee was terminated for violating the substance abuse policy. If you think that this decision lacks compassion, consider the implications of not using discipline in the process. Not only is the employer enabling the employee to continue the behavior, the employer is also taking on substantial risk of harm to coworkers and customers. Managers should use discretion in each situation, but enforcing company policies, especially policies that relate to workplace safety, can't be sacrificed in order to reduce occupational stress.

When managing individual cases of stress, the effective manager will make clear that the discipline is not intended to be a punishment or a vehicle to create fear. Rather, discipline is a way to respect the contributions of other employees and to protect the employer and coworkers from risks associated with bad workplace behaviors.

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