Four Strategies for Helping Employees Deal with Pressure and Stress at Work

How managers can& help employees avoid unreasonable workplace pressure, which can lead to unethical behavior.

A few of my recent focus groups with employees reminded me of a national survey that examined the sources and consequences of workplace stress and pressure. The survey results were published years ago, and yet unfortunately it seems that very little has changed.

The main finding of the survey was this: More than 50 percent of employees admitted committing some pressure-induced offense that, in hindsight, they believed was unethical. The survey listed numerous types of offenses and ranked the likelihood of their occurring based on the employees’ anonymous confessions.

At the time, the survey was a real eye opener for many. The 50 percent figure was unsettling enough. But the fact that pressure seemed to be the principal factor pushing good people over the line caused managers to ask themselves: “Do I apply unreasonable pressure?” “Am I sending mixed signals to get the job done at all costs?” These were good questions to ask then—and they still are today.

Related: Hear it From Employees First: Why Managers Should Encourage Whistleblowers

Pressure is a fact of business life and is not always a bad thing—on the contrary; it’s often what drives success. But unreasonable pressure can be a serious problem and in some companies it’s a significant source of unethical behavior.

Don’t Overlook the Consequences of Pressure on Employees from Outside the Workplace

In recent years, our discussion of pressure in the workplace has focused almost exclusively on pressure from managers or pressure to meet deadlines. As important as these types of pressure are, we must remember that pressure and stress from sources outside of the workplace also affect employee behavior. In particular, personal financial pressure can be a key factor in workplace misbehavior. This finding bears remembering—especially these days.

On one level the finding is obvious. Personal money problems can certainly be a contributing factor to petty theft or to padding an expense account. But there are also less obvious, more indirect connections as well. Some employees feel squeezed to make ends meet, pay their mortgages, support a child in college or care for an elderly parent—or a combination of these. Many others are worried about job security or their retirement.

When employees are under such pressure and stress, it’s impossible for them to leave their worries at home. They bring their concerns to the workplace, and it changes their behavior. It alters their decision-making and it can impair their judgment.

Here are some strategies that can help:

  1. Get out of your office. Employees want to talk. Remember, a manager can’t understand employee concerns and stress based only on surveys or crunched data. Managers need to be available, more visible and more open to discussions.
  2. Be proactive. Difficult times and financial pressures increase certain risk areas. Beef up risk-related training and internal controls pertaining to fraud and theft.
  3. Be watchful of questionable end-of-the-year efforts by managers and executives to meet goals and boost bonuses. Increased pressure can lead to increased potential for misconduct.
  4. Broaden your perspective. One of the forgotten lessons of the pressure survey is that the sources of workplace misbehavior are not always found within the office walls. As much as we may shy away from crossing the line into our employees’ personal lives, pressures and stress from home do have an impact in the workplace, and this is especially true in difficult economic times.

Bottom Line

Compassion and understanding is certainly something that we need to remember in these trying circumstances. We should remind ourselves and our colleagues that, as the economy rebounds, we may be judged based on how we treated each other during the lean times. We also have a responsibility to be vigilant and guard against fraud and similar offenses that may increase as a consequence of pressure.

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