Job stress – Information for Employers and Managers: an Interview with Prof. Ivars Udris*

By S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published in 2003 in

Q. Prof. Udris, you have worked for many years in the area of job stress, healthy workplaces and organizational practice. Please tell us why should an employer or manager be interested in job stress within his or her company? Isn’t job stress a private matter of concern only to the worker?

A. Job stress is not a private matter, because the heads of companies and managers are responsible for the health of employees and their co-workers. The conditions which influence health in the workplace are under the responsibility of the employer and those in charge. He or she has the responsibility to improve work conditions so that job stress is not harmful.

Q. Some employers or managers think that job stress is good. Do you agree with that?

A. When people think that stress is good, they are referring to the concept of “eustress”, or positive stress, equating it or mixing it up with the term “challenge”, which is a condition important for solving problems and meeting demands, as it can mobilize a person positively. So I am not very fond of the idea of eustress. This concept is popular, but not scientifically proven.

Stress – in the sense of what an employer should be concerned about – has more to do with the sense of harming a person’s health and affecting their performance negatively. This is more accurately referred to as distress. Distress or the “bad stress”, and not eustress, is correlated physiologically with tension, and psychologically with emotions such as fear and anxiety, which has the effect of impairing performance and productivity of people and also affecting their health and wellbeing. It is characterized by feelings of being afraid of losing control in a situation or not being able to cope with demands.

Q. Critics of job stress reduction measures say that such efforts are expensive. What do you say to that?

A. If you look at personnel only as a cost factor, then when one makes decisions, things seem expensive. However, if you have the idea of investing in human resources and human capital, the long-term benefits are greater than the immediate costs.

It calls for different kinds of thinking or strategies to look at personnel as a cost or as an investment. It also involves taking a long-term versus short-term view of the problem. When you invest long-term, you also get fewer absences, less employee fluctuation, increased motivation and better health.

People often think of making changes to improve working conditions in large scale integrated efforts that involve ergonomics, leadership training and the like. This is important, but we must not forget that small steps can also lead to changes, and many of these things do not cost at all.
Sometimes a company can make changes in small ways via group discussions and team meetings, especially in terms of rearranging elements of a job or function. This can produce big results in terms of reduced job stress and increased employee satisfaction.

Q. Concretely, where or how can someone such as a business owner or manager begin to take measures to reduce job stress within his or her company?

A. First, he or she has to analyze and look at what are the conditions or factors that cause stress in the work place. One can ask people via interviews, meetings and other forms of enquiry and thereby analyze the reasons that cause stress.

The second step is to then create a priority list of causes that affect people the most. It is important to identify which are the greatest causes of stress, and to determine which group of people is most affected by them.

Causes of stress can include such things as time pressure (having too many tasks to do in too little time), ergonomic factors, inadequate resources or too few people, or a combination of any of these.

The third step then would be to start with things that have been identified from the priority list and aim for immediate short term solutions. For example, things can be broken down into changes to make in the short term (e.g. 4 to 10 weeks after the inquiry), middle-term (3 to 6 months later) and long term (6-12 months).

Q. What do you say to someone who says they lack the budget to make these changes?

A. That is a good question. One must ask what the priorities of management are. Keeping people healthy and reducing rates of sickness is less expensive in the long term, and outweighs the costs of making changes. It is less expensive to make budget changes in order to reduce job stress, or to arrange a job in different ways so that stress can be reduced.

It comes back to the idea of “cost” versus “investment” and being interested in the long-term wellbeing of the worker and the company.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add, that you think is important for people to know?

A. Health (and a reduction in job stress) cannot be had without some investment of money. As we say in German “Es ist nichts kostenloss zu haben”. That means it is not to be had for free. It is important to invest in good work conditions so people stay healthy.

Healthy people need a healthy organization and a healthy organization needs healthy people. The two are interconnected and are not separate entities.

Thank You Professor Udris.

* Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, Switzerland

Copyright 2005, S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved.