How much stress can you fit in a wheelbarrow?

Once upon a time there was this guy who thought that people who couldn’t cope with their issues were displaying signs of weakness.   His attitude was that we all have crosses to bear and problems to deal with, so just deal with them!  

That person was me, and over the last few years my attitude has evolved.  How?  Before I answer, I would like to share something that I find incredibly intriguing.

What gets measured gets done?

If you are working (so that pretty much includes all of us), terms like stress, pressure and performance have become part of the everyday conversation.  If you think about it, they are terms that have an interesting effect on each other.  For example, sometimes an increase in pressure can increase performance, but it can also lead to a decrease in performance.  The same could be said about stress.  In a business world that is constantly looking for improvements in performance, this is more than just a little problematic.

The modern business response to most performance problems is to gather data, and to introduce measurements.  Afterall, what gets measured gets done and can be improved, right?

Measuring stress and pressure ain’t so easy

So how does one go about measuring stress and pressure?  And, how is it possible to measure the direct impact on performance?  It’s a little tricky, because you can’t really put stress or pressure into a wheelbarrow – it is not a physical object that can be assessed easily by others.  Sure you can see signs of its existence, but how much of it is really there?

One way to go about it is to ask people to self-report their levels of stress.   This is common, particularly in employee surveys.  The problem of course is one of comparability.  Is someone’s 6/10 the same as another’s 6/10 on the self-reported scale?   All we really know is that a self-reported measure is true for that person… according to them at the time!

If you are looking for a way to simply measure employee opinions, check out Employee Life.

The tricky bit is not so much about collecting the data (although this isn't necessarily easy), the real question is what can we do to move the dial on stress and pressure in the right direction?

The Business Problem

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Company A decides to ask their employees about their experience in the form of a survey, including asking about the stress they are under in their job.  It is a follow up survey to one completed many months earlier, and Company A’s Leaders are proud of the initiatives they have put in place.  Afterall, being seen as a great employer is important to them, and employee wellbeing is an important company value.

They are surprised when the results come in – the metrics haven’t moved much.  “But how, we did everything they asked for and more!!!”.

In this scenario, Is stress and pressure the problem, or is it the perception of stress and pressure that is the problem?  Two people can be sitting beside each other with the same boss, same salary, same workload and same working hours, but report different levels of stress.  One could be highly engaged, the other not so much.  One could describe the work as positively challenging, the other might be complaining privately about the workload.

What can the company do about this type of situation, given that it would hardly be fair to load up a person who is taking everything in their stride with more work.

The business problem is that stress perception is largely outside of the control of the workplace.  In other words, perception is totally unique to an individual.  Only a person themselves can truly influence their own perception, and the way they look at things. 

There are other considerations.  Can a company eliminate all stress from an environment?   Will there still be employees who are thriving despite the environment around them?

The Magic of Ubud, Bali

I can already tell you are wondering how a holiday island in Indonesia is relevant to this article?  Well, as part of my recent remote working experience (in case you didn't know, I have been part of a virtual working experiment where my entire team is virtual!), myself and my partner (now a wellbeing expert) have spent a lot of time in Ubud whilst also working full-time. Apart from the wonderful food, very relaxed road rules and the opportunity to wear thongs regularly, it has provided us with access to some of the finest wellbeing minds on the planet.  It really is a hub of wellness and mind-body expertise, with an amazing variety of courses and workshops available every day.

On this topic, there seems to be a consensus.  We as humans create our own experience.  As much as you can try to create an experience for someone, it is still up to them to perceive it that way. 

Workplace improvement is a shared responsibility

And so finally to the point of this article.  Workplace experience, and the improvement of it, must be a shared responsibility.   When it becomes the sole responsibility of the Company, it doesn’t really work.  If it is pushed to employees to simply sort themselves out, it doesn’t really work.  Unless it is a joint commitment from all, it doesn’t really work.

Proactive Leaders are already doing a lot to try to improve employee experience.   Fantastic.  However it is worth remembering that there is fine line between creating a great employee experience, and creating a culture of expectation.  Some of the greatest work environments I have worked in (which happened to be the most successful) had almost zero employee perks, but made up for it with respect, autonomy and an opportunity to be truly accountable for my own success.  These things also just happen to be free!  In other words, you don't have to spend a stack of money on employee perks if you get the basics of a human workplace right, combined with an effective recruitment strategy to hire people who take responsibility for creating their own experience.

This is probably the greatest workplace improvement tip I could ever share.


About the author:


Jason Buchanan is the general manager for insights and innovation of Optimum Consulting Group, a trusted and leading HR consultancy firm in Australia. He is the brain behind Optimum Direct, a web portal of the best HR tools and software for small business. He is interested in finding solutions on how companies can continue to grow without destroying the things that are important to them (employees, customers, suppliers, reputation etc).