With tough economic times organisations are undergoing cut backs, restructuring and delayering.

Employees are stressed and fearful. What can you do when you have the perfect storm of high stress and low employee engagement?

“I used to enjoy working there….I can’t believe how much the place has changed in just a year…it’s such an awful place to work now …”

A friend was telling me about the atmosphere where she works having returned from a year off. And it is easy to understand why things have changed: Staff reductions mean more work, threats of redundancy have created fear, increased compliance and risk management are leading to frustration.

To top it off she works in a bank, and it’s an understatement to say, banks are no longer institutions that people are proud to say they work for anymore. Colleagues who used to be helpful, friendly and great to work with, are now unwilling to do anything extra, irritable and unhelpful. It is the perfect storm of high stress levels and disengagement.

Reports over the last few months tell that employee engagement scores have stagnated in that last year. Has it got anything to do with the unfavourable economic situation? Everyday we hear more stories of layoffs, corporate scandals and a future where robots are taking our jobs. Is stress and fear causing disengagement? From gut feel it appears a good theory but where is the evidence to prove it?

Some proof comes from Towers Watson 2014 survey of 32,000 people across 26 countries. They found that disengagement was significantly higher when employees experience high levels of stress.

Six out of ten people who are experience high levels of stress are disengaged, whereas only one out of ten in the low stress group are disengaged. But all of you reading this who have done high school statistics are correctly saying “correlation does not mean causality”.

So we can’t 100% prove there is a relationship between stress and engagement. And we can’t say if my logic is going in the opposite direction.

It could be if you are unhappy you’re your job, ie disengaged, then this leads you to be stressed, especially if you hold high standards for yourself.

More digging and the answer turned out to be ”it depends” as the relationship between stress and engagement was not so straight forward. It depended on not just the job demands but also the resources to deal with the demands. Researchers (Schaufeli and Bakker 2004) looked at two types of job stress which anyone working in business will recognise:

  • Role ambiguity: lack of communication and clear information about what you are supposed to do. Usually the case in organisations undergoing change
  • Role Conflict: multiple roles that can’t be fulfilled at the same time. Common in your typical matrix organisation

If stress was high from role ambiguity and role conflict then it lead to high levels of disengagement, if people didn’t have resources to cope with these stress. But here it is interesting- engagement remained high if people had resources to call on such as

  • social support
  • learning opportunities
  • a supervisor who coached his/her team
  • clarity about roles and responsibilities

This is important practical advice: in times of economic uncertainly and structural changes it is going to be tough to maintain positive employee engagement. But if companies focus on helping their employees deal with stress then they can avoid the perfect storm of high stress and low engagement. Looking at social support, training supervisors to have a coaching style, providing learning opportunities and building resilience will help engage people during tough times.

But what advice is there for my friend left working in an organisation where she and her colleagues are no longer happy. Managing your personal stress levels with help of your social support and by learning something new (whether directly related to this job or not will help). And importantly keeping up a positive attitude – optimism helps you to be resilient. So that means avoiding joining in with a “bitch session” with your colleagues – you’ll just drag each other down.

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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