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Five Preventable Sources of Stress at XYZ Corp., Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

As you requested, here is my proposal for confronting the issue of employee stress at XYZ Corp. I was pleased to be given this assignment. As you know, I have worked my way up from the shop floor into middle management, so I bring to this discussion the perspectives of both our blue- and white-collar employees, hourly and salaried.

Background

Stress in the workplace keeps rising in its importance to private and governmental employers, yet managements remain oddly out of touch with possible solutions. In general, it is known that employees under long-term stress make more mistake than those who are not. Although stressed workers may regularly show up for work, their functional output may actually be lower than it should be in both subtle and overt ways — think morale and injuries.

Up to the start of the recession in 2008, increased aggregate workload was the greatest cause of stress, the equivalent to a 13th month of the year (Edwards, 2008). But today, most employers recognize that it is recession-related work pressure that has resulted in enhanced stress among employees. Growing customer demands and intensive competition within and without the workplace are the common reasons behind this phase of the trend. The inability of an organization to manage the issues of stress among its people does lead to lost productivity, especially for organizations for whom the employees (human capital) are the primary asset, as opposed to capital assets, such as land and machinery. I think we would agree that XYZ Corp. is high in both human and capital assets. We should not forget that changing lifestyles (read: changing expectations) is another key reason for workplace stress (Daft, 2011).

A study conducted in 2011 highlights the fact that in the United States more than 70% of working people consider their workplace as a primary source of stress, and 51% believe that growing workplace stress has reduced their productivity. Such stress does not just impact an organization’s quantifiable productivity, but also affects the mental and physical health of its employees for as long as their problems are unaddressed (Desjardins, 2011).

To give an indication of the size of the problem, the key finding of one recent research study is that stress-related absenteeism costs even the relatively laid-back Australian economy almost $15 billion a year (Jaramillo, 2011). Employers everywhere must take the initiative by focusing on new ways to help employees meaningfully control their environment.

Five Preventable Sources of Stress at XYZ  Corp.

In reviewing the various problems that employees encounter in their daily jobs, I should first say that that, in my experience from the bottom to middle of our company, the stress level is needlessly high. In this memo I propose five practical ways that our collective stress can be lowered economically, although at first glance some suggestions may seem to be too expensive.

With both our hourly and salaried staff, the issue is not one of pay, strictly speaking. XYZ Corp.’s pay is fully competitive, and our working areas are clean. Our safety committee takes its responsibilities seriously, and our average accident-rate is low. In general, however, our turnover rate is higher than it need be. I think the stress lies not in the fundamentals so much as it does in the near-fundamentals, in policies that senior managers may take for granted and feel no need to change, mainly because they don’t have the time to consider them seriously. But considering them seriously is the purpose of these proposals. So now to get started, I address the thing that happens to us all sooner or later: we get sick.

Proposal One: Change our Sick-Leave Policy

Employees who are out sick for more than three days are required to get a doctor’s note before returning to work. Salaried management has the same formal requirement (but with a difference that I will note below). It is my assumption that legally there is nothing that can be done about this policy. But that doesn’t mean that we are helplessly in its grips. I will state that the policy is counterproductive and a direct cause of stress, especially among hourly employees. First, most workplace illnesses are transient (cold, flu, and allergies are the greatest causes) and not serious, and adults of reasonable intelligence (our employees) know when they are well and fit to return. But the flu especially will take more than three days to recover from. And if someone is absent longer, doesn’t that increase the likelihood of recovery? If anything, one should need a note to return before three days, not after. One could also well ask, if employees need certification to return to work, why they don’t need certification to stay home in the first place? Seen this way, our policy is both stupid and counterproductive, and makes adults feel like children having to visit the school nurse. But that’s not the worst of it.

The specific source of stress is this: upon deciding that they are well, employees (including salaried managers) must get an appointment to see their doctor. If they try to use a clinic instead, they may still have to make an appointment. If appointments are not available, then they may have to wait an unpredictable amount of time before seeing the physician or nurse practitioner, who almost invariably certifies the employee as fit. Because of this, they cannot inform their supervisor or Human Resources (HR) when on a given day they will be returning. They might even have to wait a day or more. But even if it means that they are only an hour or two late, that is an hour or two that they are not getting paid. And they are taking this pay-cut after having made the co-payment to the doctor/clinic.

As I mentioned, both hourly and salaried employees pay the fee. However, managers are not docked the time missed because they don’t clock in and out. Indeed, managers can simply inform their subordinates that they will be in later without giving a specific reason.

It doesn’t take a lot of insight to suspect that the entire policy is effectively designed to entice medical providers to enroll with the insurer: such co-payments are the easiest income-stream doctors will ever earn, and they have probably long since become dependent on them. It escapes no one’s notice here (or anywhere else) that the three-day policy is rigorously enforced.

It should also be obvious enough that no one will put themselves through such a waste of time and money if they can avoid it. And so they do avoid it — by coming back to work before they are fully well. Here we see that our three-day sick policy for what it is: an illness tax, with low-paid hourly employees paying a greater portion of their income for a service that doesn’t help them. And like any tax, regressive or otherwise, people will seek to avoid paying it if they can, even at some risk to themselves and those around them. Recommendation: have HR make the employee’s doctor/clinic appointment after that employee calls in. XYZ Corp. will then pay the employee in full for the time spent getting approved to return to work.

Proposal Two: Respect Deadlines

Since our shop-floor workers have an ongoing supply of work throughout their shifts, this proposal will effect mainly our white-collar professional staff of analysts. Currently, each report they prepare for publication has its own deadline. Typically a new project gets a 24-hour deadline, while at the revision stage it gets a 12-hour one. As a professional courtesy to our customers (and between departments), our employees frequently honor the informal “ASAP” deadline. In fact, many jobs not marked ASAP get turned in early. However, there are some jobs that will require all the time allotted. It works like this: let’s imagine that a revision-job came in yesterday with a deadline of 3:00 PM today. It is now 10:00 AM. The job is complete in a sense, but the analyst feels that, due to its complexity, it would be a good idea to review it again. Anyone who has ever written, say, a term paper knows how important it is to review the work after giving it a mental rest. The longer the delay between reviews, the better, as the mind can then look at it both as new and with familiarity. Many mistakes are found this way and the best people in their fields quickly learn to incorporate delayed review into their game plan.

But not here at XYZ Corp., nor at many other organizations. If an analyst here leaves a job on their desk without actively working on it, a supervisor will march right on over and ask why. Worse, new supervisors, seeking leadership glory, often informally move the official deadline up entirely on their own whim, and I have attended meetings where such ad hoc decisions were backed up by both upper management and HR. Yet such decisions go against our own formal contracts with our customers — none of whom, to my knowledge, have ever asked jobs to be expedited in such a way. It is almost as if a defective managerial meme has evaded our corporate immune system. It is cold comfort that our competitors have caught the same bug. If our analysts and writers want to give a job one more review, a review that the formal deadline may amply allow for, they must either just work slower on it from the start or pretend to be busy on it until giving it their real attention later. So they are barred from putting the job aside until after lunch and in the meantime starting a new job. In other words, the analysts are not free to manage their own time, a damning indictment against us. Recommendation: Honor Thy Deadlines. Make it clear to the departmental supervisors that the analysts are free to manage their own time within the formal deadlines provided. This means that they can, if the workflow allows, take a walk, take a break, take an early lunch, take a late lunch, or even surf the web in full view of everyone and anyone. In short, treat them like responsible adults. Added cost: none. Benefit: better reports, happier staff, happier customers, and lowered stress.

Proposal Three: Rethink Employee Skills-Testing

Periodic skills-testing sounds like a good idea. On the surface it is hard to argue against it. Yet it is fraught with peril and is a big-time source of stress whenever it comes around. The common perception among those subject to it is that it is a make-work program that principally benefits those who administer the tests, some of whom have been promoted from the ranks.

The first problem is that it insults our most senior employees. It implies that their long-time job-performance is no measure of their skill-set, and that, like a new employee on probation, they repeatedly have to be put to the test to prove their worth. On that note, it benefits the newest employees more because it puts them on par with those senior personnel. A new employee will be motivated for that reason to take the time and make the effort to excel on such a test. And because the tests are standardized, they ignore the deep fund of experience that the senior people have accumulated and use every day. For that reason, those senior personnel have scarcely any motivation at all to view the tests as opportunities, which, for them, they aren’t. To successfully pass such a tests does not ensure promotion or a higher raise. Instead, it simply gives those who pass the green right to continue to do what they have been doing all along.

As a result, year after year, the most senior personnel tend to test the worst. Of course, it is impossible to act upon such results — no one is going to promote a new hire just because she aced an unintelligent test. But there is the nagging fear that a lower test-result may result in some vague future negative consequence, or cause a generalized impression among younger coworkers and younger managers that that senior individual seems to have stopped trying. Note as well that such tests can’t be used to test applicants, who of course don’t know enough to pass at all. As for the newer employees who do poorly, if their daily services are satisfactory enough and needed enough, they will not be dismissed because of the tests either. No one, in fact, seems to know what is done with the test-scores. Probably nothing at all is done with them. But you never know.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, like all “standardized” tests, what everyone sees about them is that many managers and even entire departments are not subjected to them. So those who are subjected to them have less status than those who are not, because, regardless of their actual daily performance, they must walk a bureaucratic gauntlet to outwardly justify their jobs. Recommendation: make passage of such tests only a requirement for promotion into management. Those uninterested in promotion should always be free to pass on them.

Proposal Four: Change How Raises are Granted

They way that XYZ grants raises is typical of corporate America. Whether hourly or salaried, what is actually a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is presented to employees as a merit raise to be earned. The “merit” is determined by the hated “annual review.”

The problem starts with such reviews. The first thing that hourly employees notice is that the questions they are asked are entirely inappropriate for their jobs. Shop-floor workers and clerical-support personnel are asked questions like What new projects did you initiate in the last twelve months? Were they successful? Why or Why not? Explain. Attach a sheet of blank paper if your answer exceeds the allotted space. In other words, hourly employees are given annual reviews that are actually intended for managers. But hourly workers are not managers and they do not initiate projects. Notice as well the very last item on such reviews: attendance and punctuality, added as a sort of afterthought (and credited with the fewest number of points). But in reality, attendance and punctuality should be the very first item on anyone’s review. It is impossible to be a good employee and have a poor record of reliably showing up for work.

The annual review is allegedly used to determine what an individual’s raise, if any, will be. But all such raises nearly always match (at most) a given geographic area’s cost of living. So it is an economic fact that, when hourly employees are given managerial annual reviews, they are being told that they have to work harder in order to stay in one place. Needful to say, this deceit fools no one except the managers who administer it. Why do we bother? There’s a better way.

Recommendation: grant all hourly employees an automatic annual COLA. Only salaried managers applying for an true merit raise should have to fill out the annual-review form. For an hourly employee, the granting of a merit raise should equal promotion into management.

Proposal Five: Change How Overtime is Granted

Managers here at XYZ like to imagine they know how to save money when granting overtime. Here is how they do it: no announcement of overtime is made until the last minute. So the “savings” comes from the refusal to commit to any overtime in advance. Typically a supervisor’s face suddenly appears at a worker’s machine or cubicle a few minutes before quitting time and says (not asks) Don’t leave. There is no information as to how much overtime there will be. If workers are told “four hours”, they know that it may only be a half-hour. If they are told “two hours”, they know it may be four. The effect of this is to rob the hourly employees of their own free evening time, and so they end up subsidizing the company with that lost free time, now made contingent upon events they can’t control. It is found money, not overtime.

It is worse for weekend work. A supervisor with a clipboard will come around and “ask” if employees are available. It is understood that they must answer yes a majority of the time. However, each available employee must call in on the scheduled weekend-day first, “to see if we really need you.” The effect of this is to programmatically rob those employees of their weekends. However, employees do not actually let their weekends get away that easily. Instead, they bring their weekends back to work with them, and management then puzzles and complains about a lack of discipline the following week. Recommendation: for daily unscheduled overtime, guarantee hourly employees a minimum of one hour. For weekend overtime, guarantee employees whatever was scheduled, but require them to come in and stay to earn it, even if that means just sitting around. Most will choose to skip it altogether. Choice is key.

Added Costs

The conventional view is that my proposals would cost XYZ Corp. too much money. But of course, the procedures we now follow are themselves costing us too much money. It is just difficult or impossible to directly measure those costs. Out of sight, out of mind. I believe that following my suggestions would save the company money in two ways: first, the lowering of needless daily stress caused by arbitrary and counterproductive rules would add value to our employees. Second, XYZ Corp. would immediately become the preferred employer in our field. As a result, pressure among applicants to work here would act to suppress entry pay-rates and raises, and pressure current employees to work their best in order to keep their jobs.

Some might argue that this is just a matter of trading sources of stress. But that misstates the situation. It is not stressful to have to work hard to earn your daily bread. People have no problem with hard work per se. It can be a source of great personal and professional pride. But it is stressful to have to jump through hoops all day while trying to do one’s best. It is a privilege to be able to just work harder to increase one’s true productivity. When people are not able to do that, they are torn between wanting to be good at their jobs and just gaming the system, which is probably the greatest source of workplace stress of all. We owe it to ourselves to do better.

References

Daft, R. L. (2011). Management (2nd ed.). London: Cengage Learning.

Desjardins, S.-J. (2011). Workplace stress a growing health hazard. Eurek Alert , 1-10.

Edwards, J. A. (2008). Psychometric analysis of the UK Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards Work-Related Stress Indicator Tool. Work & Stress; 12-78.

Jaramillo, F. (2011). Workplace Stressors, Job Attitude, and Job Behaviors: Is Interpersonal Conflict the Missing Link? Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management; 31 (1), 2-31.

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