Work Stress: How To Know If You're The Cause

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It's easy to imagine that a little extra pressure from the boss is all it takes to motivate employees to get stuff done. But high-stress offices are more often the site of greater absenteeism, tardiness and employees who intend to quit, according to the CDC.

While yes, in small doses, a little stress can help you achieve in the workplace, more often than not it's the source of emotional -- and physical -- discomfort. Stress in the workplace can lead to symptoms ranging from more frequent colds and headaches, to stomach trouble, to difficulty concentrating and focusing, says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, the Assistant Executive Director for Organizational Excellence at the American Psychological Association (APA).

And such symptoms aren't rare. As many as three in four U.S. employees report that work is a somewhat or very significant cause of stress in their lives, according to the APA, second only to money. And, says Ballard, employees tend to attribute most of that work stress to the head honcho (even if it's not really a manager's fault).

So where's the line between making sure your team stays on track and sending them running for new employment? Here are some signs you might be causing stress in the workplace.

1. You pile on responsibility after responsibility.
Most employees are already overloaded with miles-long to-do lists. An employer who assigns additional work, especially late in the day or too close to deadline, can create worried and overwhelmed employees. Ballard recommends monitoring employees' workloads. That way, when it comes time to assign a new task, you'll have a better idea of who has the bandwidth to handle it.

2. You make all the decisions.
Yes, you're the boss -- you're allowed to assign work and delegate tasks. But assignments are more stressful if you don't give employees at least the opportunity to voice how much is already on their plate and what they think they can handle. That lack of control is a well-known cause of work stress -- maybe the biggest workplace stressor of all, says Ballard. Employees who have a say about what they do at work and how they do it report greater job satisfaction. Employees might also see you as inflexible to their personal needs, like family-friendly scheduling, if this is your style of managing. Of course, not every employee wants total freedom. "The key is understanding how much structure employees need in the workplace and trying to match their needs," says Balard.

3. You don't give feedback.
It's no surprise that sometimes employees worry about how well they are performing at their job. And in an economic climate where eager replacements are waiting in the wings, subordinates are likely worrying more about how they're doing, but might not feel it's okay to ask. An employee in this scenario may also be concerned about their chances for advancement or promotion. Show your support by asking employees these two simple questions, says Ballard: Are you getting enough support from me? What could I do to help you get your job done?

4. Your instructions are wishy-washy.
Confusion about work duties, company goals or priorities can add to an employee's stress level. Someone who is unsure of what is expected of her or feels like she is wearing too many hats is more likely to feel stressed, according to the CDC.

5. You don't take into account each worker's skills and interests.
Underutilizing talent by assigning tasks outside of a worker's skill set or with little meaning can lead to frustration and stress on the job. "Make sure people have assignments that challenge them and are interesting to them," Ballard says.

6. You don't value the office.
Maybe it's noisy, or your employees can't all sit near each other, or the desk chairs are giving everyone back pain. Unpleasant office conditions should not be underestimated as stressors -- especially if the person in charge is ignoring them. "Make sure the physical environment is healthy and positive, so you're not adding strain just because of the physical office," says Balard. That might be as simple as providing quiet rooms in an open-office setting or as grand as creating a nap room.

7. You could be nicer.
There's a difference between being stern and being mean. About 35 percent of employees have reported feeling bullied at work, and mostly by bosses, according to a Career Builder survey. And the effects go beyond "just" stress, to related conditions like depression and insomnia. Take some time to reflect upon whether your behavior could be perceived as hostile, Ballard suggests, and if it has created a pattern of negative effects on your employees. Commit to putting a stop to bullying in the workplace by other managers or employees by making sure you fully understand your company's policies on such behavior and following through with the consequences.

8. You are stressed.
Your emotions -- just like your flu germs -- can spread throughout the office if you don't handle them properly. You might be rubbing off on subordinates, Ballard says, if you're not dealing with your own stress levels well. Listen to some music, take a quick break to visit a website that makes you laugh, do some easy desk stretches or find another five-minute, office-appropriate stress buster to help you out.

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