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BAEK Sung-Wook

Managing Stress at Workplace

BAEK Sung-Wook

Sept. 10, 2010

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Restructuring and relentless push for productivity can help keep companies nimble and profitable. But it also can cast debilitating stress over employees. At the extreme, it can lead to suicides.

In September last year, France Telecom saw the 24th worker committing suicide since 2008. A state-owned telecom company, France Telecom had guaranteed life-time employment. But in 2004 it became privatized, increased non-regular workers and restructured. Experts said such drastic change led to employees' serial suicides. At the Foxconn Technology's plant in Shenzen, China, there were 11 suicides and attempts from January to May this year. Workers there complained about forced overtime work, low pay and rigid management at the factory, which supplies Apple, Dell, Sony, and HP.

How much stress exists at Korean workplaces? OECD's Society at a Glance 2009 report says it is the highest among OECD member countries. It significantly compares with Japan and the US. In addition, Korea ranked lowest in work satisfaction among OECD countries. Although Korea has not experienced a burst of suicides like France Telecom and Foxconn Technology, more than a few suicides have occurred in which work-related stress was known or suspected.

Top-down management style, long working hours, and incessant pressure for output and exhaustion have been typical features of Korean workplaces in the last 50 years of building the economy. The 1997 Asian currency crisis led to contract hiring, which is now the norm, and incessant job insecurity. The 2008 global financial meltdown has slowed hiring, intensifying workloads and demands on existing staff in the tough business environment.

A certain level of stress in the workplace, of course, is normal. Some may argue that a certain level is necessary to prevent complacency and to keep everyone operating at a near optimum level. But when stress becomes overbearing, it can mental, emotional and physical health. Worker stress can no longer be considered an individual problem. Left untreated by the individual, there are many losers. Productivity is affected, putting pressure on coworkers to pick up the slack, which raises the overall stress level even more in the workplace. Left unchecked by management, the company's performance can be affected. With ethical management evermore emphasized in a very competitive society, stress cannot be ignored.

In order to effectively manage stress, it must be tackled by at an individual and company levels alike in a 3-3 strategy. That is, employee, leadership and system and policy working to prevent, diagnose and treat work-related stress.

Employees need to monitor their stress level; self-diagnosis, similar to health checkup, is needed. They need to balance their work and personal life to prevent excess stress. These efforts include daily exercise. Finally, they should see professional help at an early stage.

As for managers, they need to realize that managing employees' stress is precondition to high corporate performance. In Korea, there is tendency to believe that once performance comes out well everything is solved. Many people also consider heavy stress as something inevitable. However, such a culture exacerbates a stressful environment.

Managers need to be sensitive to stress levels of individual employees as well as on a department and company wide basis. Accordingly, some type of system is needed to observe and accurately gauge stress.

Managers also need to be proactive when they see stress levels have exceeded an abnormal level. For example, they can send an employee on vacation or encourage the person to seek professional help. For those having hard time in adapting to work or if two coworkers have a severe conflict, the manager may change work duties.

Companies need to create an environment that lowers stress and facilitates treatment. In short, this means attention to operating systems and infrastructure. One way to reduce stress is to include employees in decision making or delegating authority to them. This will raise work commitment of employees. Other measures are improving working terms, creating a refreshing work environment, introducing flexible working system and long vacations.

Finally, an employee assistance program, such as in-house counseling system or referral program for offsite help is vital. To their credit, some companies in Korea have already set up counseling services. However, employees often are reluctant or passive about seeking professional help, even when they feel severe stress, and try to muddle through. A system that protects the privacy of employees is necessary so troubled employees do not feel stigmatized by their manager and coworkers.

All in all, for a company to strengthen competitiveness in an ever-competitive world, stress management is imperative. Excess stress is the largest obstacle to creativity, and employees, managers and the company should collectively seek to create enjoyable balance in the workplace.

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