Dealing with Role Stress at Work


Stress can play a huge role in our daily work lives. As organizations are forced to succeed with fewer resources, it often seems that jobs disappear overnight. However the amount of work remains constant. For those employees that are left to fulfill obligations, this can mean absorbing an increased number of tasks into an already lengthy “to do” list.

I have heard employees describe how the job they once loved, has morphed into an unrecognizable “monster”.

You can’t solve every the problem that contributes to stress at work. But, it is in everyone’s best interest to take hold of the issues you can address and act swiftly. Stress is serious business – so move the needle where ever possible.

Could role stress be a problem at your organization?

There are a number of different scenarios that can trigger a role stress problem. Early diagnosis is important – so ask yourself the questions which follow. If you answer yes to anyone of them, a review  is warranted:

  • Do you have unfilled positions which other employees are covering?
  • Do your employees have work in more than one function or department?
  • Are your employees often “on the road” and out of the loop?
  • Are you offering a new product or type of service?
  • Does your organization have a new reporting obligation or parent company?

Stem the tide of stress

There are simple and effective methods to keep certain sources of role stress at a minimum. Two huge offenders are role ambiguity and role conflict:

  • Keep a keen eye out for role overload. Overload can build over a period of time, as tasks are added slowly. However, employees can reach a point where they are clearly overwhelmed.
  • Reduce role ambiguity by ensuring that employees have clarity concerning their roles and the accompanying expectations. This includes outlining performance criteria and markers of effectiveness. Offer frequent opportunities to receive feedback about their work.
  •  Clear up role conflict — the confusion that comes when employees experience competing obligations. If an individual has cross-departmental or cross-functional duties, be sure they are aware of priorities when meeting their obligations.

What to discuss if you suspect a role stress problem

  • Set core tasks, then expand. Consider jobs in relation to other roles in the organization. How does the role fit in? What are the key tasks the role should accomplish for the organization? Align tasks accordingly , as the work should “make sense”.
  • Has the job evolved to include too many tasks?  If a job has obviously expanded in the last six months — take a look. Attempt to limit tasks that do not appear relevant or useful. Ask yourself:  Can obligations logically be trimmed?
  • Meet with the employee. In this case the incumbent is the expert. Have the employee list all daily tasks and whom they interact with to get the job done. Compare with your view of core tasks for the role.
  • Discuss options to modify tasks. Research has shown that employees often feel that they spend their time addressing meaningless tasks. Have some tasks become obsolete? On the flip side, are new tasks now a priority? Be sure to touch upon tasks which are obvious sources of stress, such as redundant reports and meetings. Propose a few meaningful changes.
  • Work to remove roadblocks to success. Small changes can spell big relief for your employees. In particular, pay attention to policies and procedures that were once helpful, but now are impeding progress.

Reducing role stress has payoffs

Research shows that role issues are related to workplace outcomes such as satisfaction and performance effectiveness, areas which have an  impact on eventual organizational outcomes. If you are suffering from role stress, talk to your supervisor. If you are a business owner — talk with your employees.

If possible swiftly address the sources of role stress and help your organization move forward.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. Find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

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