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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

May 4, 2019


Nearly half of all employees often experience negative work-related stress, flowing through to lower levels of engagement and motivation. As leaders, we can dramatically reduce this figure, and transform the performance of individuals and our organisations.




Hello and welcome to episode 34 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at how leaders can move their people from ‘stressed’ to ‘strong’.


Negative work-related stress takes a significant toll on individuals and the organisations for which they work. My recent research with over 1,400 not for profit leaders and employees reveals 46% of people report often experiencing negative work-related stress – a group I call “The Stressed”. Furthermore, 80% see their work as demanding – a group I call “The Stretched”.


The experience of these two groups is quite different. Those who often experience negative work-related stress have 17% lower employee engagement ratings compared to the rest - “The Stressed” are less likely to be engaged with their work and organisation than others. And this negative sentiment is reflected in all aspects of employee engagement, particularly in a 24% lower rating of their likelihood to recommend their organisation to others as a place to work. 


In contrast, those who find their work demanding have 21% higher employee engagement than those who don’t see their work as demanding. “The Stretched” are much more likely to be engaged with their work and their organisation. This group’s level of motivation to do their best work for the organisation is particularly notable, being 29% higher than the rest of the people surveyed.


However, there is overlap between these two groups. It’s possible to be both “Stressed” and “Stretched”, or any other combination of these two factors.


In the research I separated out those who find their work demanding, but don’t often experience negative work-related stress – a group I call “The Strong”. This 38% of employees report 34% higher levels of employee engagement than the rest of those surveyed. Their ratings of whether they would recommend their organisation to others as a place to work are 40% higher than others. They’re much more likely to be motivated to do their best work for the organisation, and are also more likely to want to stay with the organisation. The positive impact of being amongst “The Strong” flows through to all elements of employee engagement.


This raises an important question – what is different about the experience of individuals that might account for these dramatically different outcomes in employee engagement?


It turns out that “The Stressed” provide particularly poor ratings of the level of autonomy they have in how they achieve outcomes, being 21% lower than the rest of those surveyed. Their ratings of the opportunity to develop capability in areas that are important to them are 17% lower than others. This is consistent with broader research into stress at work – a lack of autonomy and capability to do your job well is a recipe for negative stress.


In contrast, “The Stretched” are 32% more likely to see their work as contributing to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. This sense of purpose appears to buffer people from the adverse impocts of negative stress, helping the individual to interpret challenges and demands in a more positive light. It’s much easier to see a demanding job as a good thing if you believe you are making a positive impact on something that matters. The ability to develop meaningful connections at work also appears to help, with “The Stretched” rating this 24% higher than others.


“The Strong” have particularly positive ratings of purpose, development, connections and autonomy. These four work environment factors are also significantly positively correlated with employee engagement. Each of these factors individually accounts for 28% to 40% of the variance in employee engagement.


For leaders the message is clear. We need to provide a clear and compelling direction first. We then need to provide development opportunities so people are equiped and confident to tackle their work. Thirdly, we need to connect our people with others that can support them and with whom they can collaborate. And, lastly, we need to delegate the authority to our people to act, providing them with the autonomy they need.


As leaders we have a unique opportunity to turn “The Stressed” into “The Strong”, and to create a work environment where everyone can bring their best and flourish. This isn’t just great for our people, it’s also great for our organisations and those we serve.