Work-related stress is at sky-high levels as employees struggle with constant technological change, unsupportive managers and heavy workloads. An “always on” culture that’s blurred the line between work and leisure time also drives stress levels up – and in some cases leads to burnout. That’s a tragedy for the individuals concerned and a problem for their employers who must cover the heavy costs of sickness absence or of hiring replacements.
Stress levels vary from country to country, but this is a worldwide epidemic. In the UK, for example, government statistics show that over half a million workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. According to another source, 40% of the population in both the US and France, and 60% in Japan, experience high to moderate stress.
Research findings challenge conventional thinking on stress
It’s widely accepted that highly stressed employees are less engaged with their work and less productive than those who are not under so much pressure. But new research by Marko Kesti, Adjunct Professor, HRM-Performance at the University of Lapland, paints a more complicated picture.
Professor Kesti has developed a method of measuring the quality of working life and assessing its impact on both employee engagement and productivity. The VibeCatch QWL Index, is used by a growing number of companies to take the pulse of their workforce and identify workplace improvements.
The latest study by Professor Kesti looked at QWL data from many of these companies alongside data on long-term sickness and disability from the same companies. As you’d expect, he found that employees with low quality of work life scores were at much greater risk of burning out than those with higher scores.
But when looking at the impact of stress on productivity, the study came up with some surprising findings. “Stress lowers productivity to some extents and, if it’s really bad, to a bigger extent, but the factor that really increases productivity is personal motivation, and the higher that goes, the bigger the impact it has,” says Juha Huttunen, CEO of VibeCatch.
Why toxic workplaces sometimes deliver great results
Huttunen argues that the importance of personal motivation helps explain why some companies manage to get great results despite overworking their people and having a toxic culture. He gives the example of a well-known technology company described by some of its employees as being the worst place to work, but also the best because it gives them the chance to do things they could not do anywhere else. That boosts their motivation and performance.
“So you can have improving results, even though there may be a lot of stress in the company and your satisfaction scores are down – so long as they don’t go too low,” says Huttunen, adding that many HR professionals don’t want to hear this. “HR people don’t want employees to be stressed. They want people to be happy – but that’s not what drives up results.”
The payoff from meaningful work
The VibeCatch QWL survey tool gathers employee feedback and then automatically generates recommendations for what employers should do to make their workforce more productive and their company more profitable. These recommendations are tailored to each company’s needs, but are likely to include suggestions for giving employees meaningful work and meaningful objectives, with a chance to achieve those objectives as part of a great team.
Yes, it’s important to keep stress levels low and do everything possible to help employees avoid burnout. But these measures alone won’t do much good for your company’s bottom line. The real payoff comes from helping people find meaning in their work.
To find out more about how the VibeCatch QWL could help your company, contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org.