How to Reform the Zoo: Dealing with Workplace Stress

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, workplace stress is “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.”  It can be caused by a number of internal and external factors that impact most modern organizations on a regular basis.

Figure 1: Stress Factors

A recent HCS survey of 1,000 employees in various industries explored the most important causal factors of workplace stress.  The respondents identified the major external factors as the state of the economy, position of the industry, home or personal issues, or other environmental factors.  The primary internal factors pertained to corporate culture, workplace relationships, job type, workload, compatibility of supervisor’s style to our best method of motivation, career expectations, performance, and future prospects of the organization.  Figure 1 summarizes the results of the survey.  Supervisor interaction, workload or burnout, the current state of the economy, and dynamics of workplace relationships are the most occurring stressors according to the respondents.  Even in these challenging times, three of the four major stressors are all internal to the organization.  The next lower grouping relates to the type of industry and job of the respondent.  Organizational culture, personal issues, and concerns with the future of the organization make up the third grouping.

We all experience a certain amount of stress no matter what we do and where we work.  What is the cost of stress?

Ravi Tangri in his 2006 book Stress Cost, Stress Cures estimated that workplace stress cost US businesses approximately $300 billion a year. The assigned the total cost of stress to the following areas:

  • 19 percent of absenteeism;
  • 40 percent of turnover;
  • 55 percent of employee assistance programs;
  • 30 percent of short- and long-term disability;
  • 10 percent of drug plan costs;
  • 60 percent of total workplace accidents; and
  • 100 percent of workers comp and lawsuits are because of stress.

Similarly, according to a study of 46,026 employees conducted by The HERO Group, workers with unmanaged stress had 46 percent higher medical costs than those without unmanaged stress.

Some of the factors captures in Figure 1 are more macro in nature.  Some of the organization-wide actions that can reduce stress include:

  • Create jobs that match employee skills
  • Define and communicate employee roles and responsibilities
  • Ensure that employees have interesting and challenging opportunities
  • Assign workloads that are reasonable
  • Communicate with employees regarding their work performance and future expectations
  • Work with employees on career development
  • Encourage interaction with peers and supervisors
  • Help employees address their workplace stress in positive manners
  • Ensure that your managers are effective

How do these ideas relate to the three “animal” types that were highlighted in the last post?  Although each type would benefit from the general suggestions above, there are some specialized actions that might be employed as well.


The giraffe needs to be engaged.  A giraffe will benefit from feeling more part of the team and gaining support from others instead of feeling removed and above his or her peers.  Typically, feeling like the giraffe arises from supervisor and peer interaction coupled with workload and uncertainty.  The giraffe personality disengages and moves “above” everything to deal with stress of the work environment.

Big Cat

The big cat is angry and pacing since it has lost control of its situation and does not know what else to do to return to a sense of calm.  The big cat is normally overworked or burdened and needs to find some type of balance between work and life. Certain job types and industries have more big cats than others, but it can occur anywhere there is a heavy workload and a culture that supports devouring the weak.  The big cat needs to find balance and the supervisor needs to be the one that intercedes to help.


The monkey focuses a lot of interaction on petty issues with coworkers and carrying the weight of negative elements from the workplace or home life.  Generally, the monkey needs to shift his or her emphasis away from peers to his or her own work.  By managing his or her time better, he or she is able to devote more effort to things that will provide a higher level of satisfaction and fulfillment and more opportunities for job involvement.  As a result, it is important that the refocusing process is supported by the supervisor as well as rebuilds any damaged workplace relationships.

We all live with stress.  Like many things, it is important to recognize that it is there and talk about how best to address it in your organization.

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