Stress Inc

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The sudden death by heart attack of a 40-year-old manager would be cause for concern in any office. At the Office of the Auditor General of Canada that shock was compounded by the fact that several employees had taken leaves of several months for emotional problems over the past year or so. Assistant auditor general Ted McNamara knew the OAG had problems. He named himself-investigator, and zeroed in on stress as his first suspect in the search for a cause. That was as far as he had to look, for he had found the culprit.

Heart attacks and emotional breakdowns are extreme results of stress, and don't top most CAs' day-to-day concerns. But what should concern accounting organizations is the risk that talented people will decide that their work is not worth jeopardizing their physical and emotional health, and leave. Some firms have taken steps to prevent an exodus of talent (not to mention worse problems) in the form of stress management programs. They range from something as simple as hiring a speaker, to conducting workshops, to performing organizationwide stress examinations. Most firms do a great deal of the first, some of the second and very little of the third. The first two approaches assume that stress begins and ends with the individual. If that assumption is correct, then they can be useful. The third approach, which assumes that the organization itself is a potential source of stress, is the least common, but can be the most useful.

"We're finding we have to work with people on two levels," says Lucille Peszat, director of the Canadian Centre for Stress and Well-Being in Toronto. "We work one on one, and then prepare the organizational setting, so it isn't a major source of stress." Richard Earle, director of the Canadian Institute of Stress in Toronto, says that his experience has taught him that "stress levels of a single individual are the litmus test for an organization. If you follow the corrosive trail, you find that root causes are extremely unique to each organization." Not until organizations broaden their stress management mandate to include work structures as a source of stress will they understand all the underlying causes; not until then will the lofty goal of preventing work stress be more than an unrealized, albeit ambitious, dream.

Of the eight largest Canadian accounting firms, half have tried some form of stress management training. BDO Dunwoody Ward Mallette and Price Waterhouse have held educational seminars, and Ernst & Young and Coopers & Lybrand hold workshops. The OAG is unusual with its corporate approach to stress management. Some firms, such as KPMG Peat Marwrick Thorne, care for distressed employees through an outside employee assistance program. Others allocate no resources for stress management.

The fallout from stress can be shattering. Common symptoms include irritability, frustration, procrastination, feeling out of control, inability to concentrate, chest pains, digestive difficulties and sleeping problems. Accountants are extremely vulnerable to symptoms such as failures in memory: being inaccurate or forgetful is professional poison. Peszat, who has treated CAs in her consulting practice, says most are type-A personalities. They're intense, aggressive, perfectionist and extremely committed to their work. When they are under too much stress, they can't sleep, which makes them unable to concentrate during the day, which in turn leads to mistakes, and so the cycle continues.

During tax season, many tax practitioners run on pure adrenaline until they cross the finish line. Then they get depressed. "They get the blues, and reactions like pickiness and irritability set in about four to six weeks after year end," Earle says. Studies in type-A personalities suggest that the risk of heart attack during this period is three times that of the normal risk. High blood pressure is common, and psychological disorders become a possibility. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health numbers psychological disorders among the top 10 work-related injuries in the United States.

Your organization may already be paying steeply for stress. In provincial government survey, chief executives in Ontario estimated that stress causes 26.2% of employee sick time, which translates into 11.6 million days of work lost, or $1.2 billion annually. The price may climb even higher in Ontario where the Workers' Compensation Board is considering a policy to compensate workers for chronic stress injuries. Although the WCB would set the policy, firms and corporations would end up footing the bills.

Finding the causes if the first step in any stress prevention program. Most organizations look to individuals as the source and expect them to find their own solutions. Stress experts come on site for a seminar or workshop, which lasts anywhere from two hours to two days, during which they evaluate stress levels and coping skills through written tests. Then they offer methods for coping with stress, such as relaxation techniques, and ways to lower expectations about life (and hence reduce disappointments). When the experts leave, people go back to their desks to breathe deeply and hope for less, and management feels quite pleased with itself--sometimes with good reason.

Consultants use a variety of tests to assess individuals' stress levels and their ability to cope. What differentiates types of stress training is not the test, but how far the participants go in their search for causes. StressMap is a diagnostic tool used by Coopers & Lybrand and Ernst & Young. It's distributed by the Centre for High Performance in Collingwood, Ont. The centre sold 48,500 StressMaps in the past three years to insurance companies, financial services institutions, school boards, manufacturers and accounting firms. Working in private with a 24-page workbook, each person in the organization indicates whether there were great, moderate, few or no changes in the past year in, for instance, their type of work, and whether they're working with new technologies or new management teams Once everyone has tallied their answers, the numbers become points on individual charts that are compared to average responses. The seminar leader then reviews suggestions for improvement, and everyone goes away to digest.

Jeanie McKibbon, an audit manager at Ernst & Young' s Saint John office, used StressMap last summer when she was promoted to manager. Her results were close to average on most scales (such as adaptability, personal satisfaction, time management and self-esteem) and she excelled on job satisfaction. She also discovered, however, that she worried too much about job performance. She has since learned to express her doubts and hesitancies when she feels them, instead of trying to ignore them, or hoping someone else will bring them up. "Instead of worrying about whether a job is getting done properly, I go and ask," she says. "I'm having a lot of fun with what I'm doing. I feel more in control."

One Hamilton, Ontario tax partner had more serious stress problems. His work pressures measured in the burnout zone: He had many tasks to do, with conflicting and competing demands; office politics were severe, as were deadline pressures; colleagues had health problems; staff-levels were low. "It was one thing after another," he says. The stress was showing up as muscle tension, chest pain, headaches, stomach and abdominal pains, nervousness, fatigue, procrastination, and difficulty in concentrating. He was drinking too much, and taking too much Tylenol.

The tax partner (who did not wish to be named) learned from taking the StressMap test that he needed to relax. "Someone I work with said I need more of a 'screw-it' attitude," he says, laughing. "I took a day off work to take a bunch of school kids to an amusement park. I said, 'The heck with it, I'm going to have some fun.' I would never have done that before." Small steps come first. He still hasn't taken more than one week of vacation at a time, although he knows he should. Fortunately, work pressures eased a bit when the firm hired more people.

Coopers & Lybrand has been using StressMap for two and a half years. Sessions usually last only a few hours, but sometimes extend to two days. Once participants have been through the personal aspects, they gather into small groups and share their work frustrations. They're encouraged to solve their problems together, through role-playing, for instance. If someone can't cope with a colleague, the seminar leader might play the role of the colleague to rehearse new ways of approaching the problem. The goal is to find solutions before everyone returns to work.

Having too much work to do in too little time is a popular source of stress. Lack of communication is also common, says Betty Black, national director of training at Coopers, as is technology that's installed without consideration for the people who will use it. But each person has different sources of stress, and often more than one. When people finally settle on the cause, they may not be able to change it. "We teach people to put on psychological armour," Peszat says. "We teach them to focus on themselves, and not waste time with stressors that can't be changed."

Leo McClosky, a Coopers & Lybrand manager in Edmonton, in management consulting services, has learned that lesson. "Some problems are so big, there's nothing I can do about them." When he sees a problem, he asks himself whether it's worth the hassle to do something about it. If it is, then he does an analysis and evaluates the alternatives, using the same technique he would use on any problem. "If I can do something about it, I do. It all begins with, 'Do I want to act on this?'"

Medical and sociological research indicates that the most common causes of workplace stress are uncertainty, lack of decision-making ability, and lack of control--none of which are individual prerogatives. That the work environment itself might be a cause of the stress is something that too many organizations still do not recognize. "People won't admit it's the system's fault," Earle says. "It's the perfect opposite of the Japanese, who blame everything on the system."

The OAG's McNamara understood the importance of examining the system. With the support of then Auditor General Ken Dye, first priority was given to identifying major sources of stress within the OAG and doing something about them. To test his hypothesis that stress was at the root of the office's problems, McNamara turned to the Canadian Institute of Stress, which began by asking all 630 employees to fill out questionnaires, to take the stress temperature of the office. Each person received their own computer-generated results, which measured their stress levels against individuals in comparable groups. The organizational profile showed that the stress level was in fact higher than would have been expected. The two most prominent stressors were ambiguity and feelings of conflict.

Everyone at the OAG was offered a day and a half of stress management training. In groups, they reviewed the usual relaxation techniques and were taught how to recognize the signs of stress, identify causes, then determine whether anything could be done to eliminate or change the cause. The groups were initially made up of people at different levels, so clerks were sitting with senior managers. But those at the lower ranks were reluctant to contribute. Since those people were most affected by stress, the groups were then reorganized so that people of similar levels in the hierarchy worked together. Managers took an additional day of training focusing on management styles and how to identify stress problems among staff.

The issue of ambiguity was quickly confirmed. People had for some time been debating their role: Were they management consultants or auditors? Did they exist to help other departments improve performance, or to report on deficiencies? Other reasons for ambiguity and conflict were employee perceptions that work was appraised and recognized inconsistently, that staff members weren't involved enough with technological and organizational changes and that attest auditors were undervalued and not appreciated as much as those who audit the efficiency of government operations and get their work on the six o'clock news.

The CIS wanted staff members to make recommendations about how problems that affected them could be solved. Senior members of the office thought the CIS, as the professionals, should be making the recommendations. The CIS resisted and, along with McNamara, was able to persuade senior people to consider staff recommendations, provided they represented common opinions, were presented in detail, dealt with a likely cause of stress, and presented a solution that had a good chance of being effective.

The staff's first recommendation was to clarify the mission statement. This step has become part of a move to total quality management in the OAG. With the attest auditing problem, staff recommended that the role of attest work be clarified, that reward systems be created, that career opportunities be clarified, that staff be appraised equitably against accepted performance criteria, and that when "outplacing" becomes necessary, it is done with dignity. Management responded by revising the appraisal system to allow for fewer formal appraisals and more frequent discussions. They encouraged staff members to do their own career development, and recognized that people don't have to be high-flyers to be doing good work. In all, staff made eight recommendations, all of which eventually resulted in some response from management.

Stress management training cannot help people who need intensive individual attention, but employee assistance programs can. The CIS recommends that all organizations set up an EAP after training. The Office of the Auditor General established a confidential outside EAP and distributed wallet-sized cards with the phone number. Peat Marwick Thorne and Ernst & Young also offer assistance plans run by outside organizations to their employees. At Ernst & Young about 7% of staff use the service. The OAG doesn't know whether its stress program worked, whether there's less stress now than when the program began, whether the $240 per staff member was money well spent. It has yet to retest everyone. McNamara is worried that there may be as much uncertainty now as when the project began, given a new auditor general, new technology and an effort to implement total quality management. (The new auditor general's commitment to TQM, however, which includes removing damaging stressors, is reassuring.)

Those who work at the OAG may not know how to solve all their problems, but at least they know what the problems are. That puts them light years ahead of most other organizations. And as McNamara says, "We have to be given credit for trying to deal with it." In the end, that's all any organization can do. Unfortunately, it's more than many have even considered.