Stress Doesn't Motivate People – Challenge Does

Take out the stress before it takes you out.

Stress is everywhere. You can’t get away from it.

Oh, you may try, of course. You may take a vacation to “get away from it all,” but chances are, you’ll still find plenty of stress over there.

David Brenner talked about that in his book, If God Wanted Us To Travel. He lists some of the things you DON’T want to hear when you’re traveling.

* “I thought you were listening when he was giving us directions.”

* “Still glad we took the scenic roads?”

* “Folks, in my 42 years of piloting, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

* “Didn’t you know this is our monsoon season?”

* “What reservation?”

* “We believe we found part of your suitcase.”

* “In your money, that converts to — hold on to your hat…”

* “No, the man you gave your bags to does not work here.”

* “Hey, Joe, you’ll never guess where these folks think they are.”

And despite all the talk about stress and stress management, I see plenty of signs that stress is a bigger problem than ever. Many businesses no longer respond to the changes by hiring more people to handle a heavier workload. These days, most employers try to squeeze more productivity out of fewer people. They demand better, smarter, and faster performance from already overburdened staff members.

There seems to be a myth in operation. Many managers seem to have the idea that if they pour on the pressure, their people will perform better. According to Dr. David Munz, professor of psychology at Saint Louis University, that is a “misconception.” He says, “Stress is really wear and tear on the individual, and there is no way that can motivate.”

In reality, it’s not a stressful environment that motivates. It’s a challenging environment. If employees feel challenged to meet an exciting goal and are given the tools to complete their tasks, they’ll be motivated. And if they’re given the skills to work with people and solve problems with people, they’ll be very motivated.

You’ve got to create that special environment at work. After all, most people don’t want to be exhausted at the end of the day. But neither do they want a boring job. That’s why I created my program on “Staying Up in a Down World: 8 Keys to a Positive Work Environment.” It comes in keynote, half, and full-day versions.

So how can you tell if there’s too much stress in your workplace? There are lots of signs, but some common signs would include the following.

* Absenteeism increases. (You may not be able to say why, but suddenly, just when you need people the most, they get sick.)

* Unplanned vacation requests skyrocket.

* People become irritable and difficult.

* Negative attitudes become more commonplace.

* Mistakes in everyday tasks escalate.

* And you’re also stressed out. (Hint — If you’re the boss and you’re stressed, you can bet your whole staff is stressed as well.)

If you decide there’s too much stress in your workplace, there are some things you can do about it. You don’t have to “suck it up” and “live with it.”

1. Open up a dialogue.

Encourage employees to speak up before they reach work overload. And ask them to speak up when they feel overwhelmed.

Peter Chang, a professor of organizational psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology, says, “It can make a world of difference to have meetings where people express what is on their minds, and the management does more listening than talking.” Give staff members a chance to talk about what they like and don’t like about their overall work environment. Open up the valve so people can let off some steam.

2. Channel the input.

To keep those meetings from deteriorating into gripe sessions, ask the employees to fill out a questionnaire before each meeting. Ask them to describe: 1) the five tasks they perform most often, 2) the five things they like the best about their work, 3) the five things they like the least about their work, and 4) five things that would make a positive difference at work.

When employees list five things they like about their work, they get some well-needed perspective. They begin to realize that work isn’t all gloom and doom. And they begin to realize that it’s too easy to simply focus on the negative, stressful aspects of work.

In addition, when employees list some things that would reduce their work-related stress, they move from “what’s working” to “what’s needed.” They move away from mere griping to meaningful problem solving.

3. Take action.

Of course it’s not good enough to simply talk about solutions. As a group, you’ve got to decide what you can do about the situation — and then do it. Some of the solutions will focus on actions that the team members can take, and some actions will require the manager’s input and influence. But you’ve got to do something.

Then, at future meetings, talk about the suggestions that were made. Talk about the actions that were taken. And celebrate the improvements you’ve experienced.

4. Encourage humor.

Stress and laughter are incompatible. When people laugh, they break the stress — at least for the moment. Things don’t seem so bad, and things seem more controllable. After all, you are “choosing” to laugh about it.

You could even lead your team in an exercise of “attitude reversal.” Have them list all the bad, stressful things at work, and then write out a benefit for each one. Of course, the benefit may be rather outrageous, but that’s where the humor comes in.

Here’s a few, just for practice. A person says, “It’s great going bald. I have less hair to comb.” Another person says, “I really enjoyed it when that client gave me a piece of his mind — because I know he hasn’t got much left.”

Or you could use the “crazy questions” technique. When you encounter stressful situations, throw out some fun questions. If, for example, you’re stressed out about the economy, you could ask, “If the prime rate is what banks charge friends, who needs enemies?” If your kids and summer vacation are a bit challenging, you might ask, “Why do so many teenagers, who complain there’s nothing to do during summer vacation, have to stay out so late at night to get it done?” And if bad weather’s got you down, look at the bright side. Since Hawaii has the same weather year-round, how do they ever start conversations?

You may not be able to take out all of the stress in your life. But you can manage the stress before it takes you out.

Action:  Put aside 30 minutes at your next team or staff meeting to discuss the stress you’re experiencing. Let people blow off some steam. Then, as a group, decide on the five major causes of the stress, and decide on five activities you can take to manage, eliminate, or minimize your stress.