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Organizational Stress Management for Managers

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.

Front-line managers are in a unique position to reduce organizational stress for the employees that they supervise. This lesson explores ways that managers can reduce the stress of their employees using tools specific to their role.

Change is Hard

Every company undergoes changes, and every organization's employees can be adversely affected by uncertainty and fear. Some workplace events like leadership changes, bankruptcies, and major policy changes will nearly always bring stress to the company's workforce. Organizational stress is a term used to characterize workplace events that cause employees to feel and sometimes act on stress, frustration, or anger. While the organizational stress associated with these relatively common workplace changes is unavoidable, managers have a unique ability to drastically reduce the adverse impact of such occurrences.

There is always organizational stress, but front-line managers have a unique ability to reduce it.
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Uncertain Future: Organizational Stress and Employer Stability

In 2016, the Denver International Airport (DIA) opted not to renew a below-the-wing services contract with SkyWest, Inc. and awarded the contract to a UK-based company called Simplicity. This contract change meant more than 650 employees who worked in baggage handling and ramp operations would lose their jobs. That's a lot of employees, and that's a whole lot of rapid change. How exactly does a front-line manager keep it together for both themselves and their employees during such a tumultuous time?

Indifference and Motivation

SkyWest managers faced a monumental task. You can probably imagine that morale was at an all-time low, and everyone had what some call short-timer's syndrome. Although it's an informal term, short-timer's syndrome refers to what occurs when employees who will soon leave the organization begin to become indifferent and lose motivation. Despite the name, it's a real phenomenon and a source of organizational stress that front-line managers will face constantly. At SkyWest, front-line managers had the difficult challenge of keeping indifference and negativity at bay when many of the 650 employees simultaneously lost at least some degree of motivation.

Even when organizational stress is significant, great managers are able to provide motivation using a combination of incentives and personal charisma.
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The Importance of Engagement

Whether the turnover is voluntary or involuntary, a front-line manager can go to their proverbial ''toolbag'' for some time-tested ways to support their employees with high levels of organizational stress. Engagement is key. In this context, engagement means communicating with employees in a way that is as transparent as possible, as positive as the situation will allow, and with confidence (but not arrogance).

Employee Assistance Programs

One tool that SkyWest's front-line managers made use of was the company's employee assistance program or EAP. An EAP is a group of services that help employees who are experiencing both personal and organizational stress. Most of these programs are free to employees, and managers are often empowered to make voluntary (and sometimes mandatory) referrals to the program for a wide variety of issues like workplace behavior, substance abuse, and financial challenges. SkyWest used their EAP to provide employees with mental health services, financial planning, and an outlet for organizational stress during the tough times.

Managers can often refer an employee to the company EAP when they are being affected by organizational stress.
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Incentives and Expectations

It's doubtful that SkyWest's front-line managers could have accomplished their mission without having the ability to provide incentives to employees who performed well during the transition. Although you may feel like the definition of ''incentive'' is obvious, it's important to give a definition that encompasses more than just a financial incentive. A monetary bonus is certainly one type of incentive, but an incentive can be more broadly defined as anything that a manager can use as a reward for the behavior that they want to see repeated. Front-line managers who cannot use a monetary incentive should consider alternatives like formal recognition, a department celebration, friendly competition, or workplace privileges.

Clarifying expectations is another important part of the incentive process. While there are always exceptions, most employees (even those experiencing organizational stress) want to do what is expected of them. There is a great deal of truth to the idea that employees will work for a manager they respect even when their feelings about the company are less than warm.

The All-Powerful ''Thank You'' and Active Listening

You probably learned to say ''thank you'' in the first few years of life. Those words carry more power in the workplace than you can imagine. Try them sometime and you'll witness this power first hand. When organizational stress is overtaking an employee, front-line managers who couple active listening with ''thank you'' will observe a palpable reduction in the negativity of stressed-out employees.

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