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Stress control: your role as supervisor.

Stress control: Your role as supervisor

The annual cost of stress-related physical and mental illnesses in this country is said to exceed $70 million.1 With the bill running that high, stress prevention and stress management programs can be very cost-effective.

Much has been written about stress, stressors, distress (harmful stress), eustress (beneficial stress), and burnout. Most authors tell us how to cope with personal stress but say little about the supervisor's role in stress management. We will address that overlooked subject here.

Let's begin by noting that while a little stress helps keep employees on their toes, excessive stress (distress) can disable them. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to gauge whether someone is on the low or high side of the stress scale.

Say, for example, that an employee has become preoccupied with "busywork.' You pile on more work because it appears that the employee doesn't have enough to do. If the penchant for busywork is actually a sign of excessive stress, assigning more work will at best be counterproductive; at worst it might precipitate a mental or physical illness.

The list of disabilities caused or aggravated by stress is impressive. It includes hypertension, coronary heart disease, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers, asthma, headaches, backaches, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders.

There are many stressors over which supervisors have little or no control. These include the powerful internal stressors of ambition, materialism, and competitiveness, and external stressors related to family problems, commuting, financial mismanagement, or midlife crisis.

Supervisors do play a key role in job-related stress, however. Figure I lists common sources of such stress.

Stress thresholds are important factors whenever we make career decisions for ourselves or others. Many laboratorians are just not cut out to cope with the stressors of managerial positions. On the other hand, it's possible to become relatively immune to certain stressors, including those linked to managerial tasks.

Our responsibility as managers is both preventive and therapeutic in nature. A preventive approach balances stress through application of better managerial skills. Therapeutic measures demand early recognition of harmful stress and prompt treatment. Let's examine key aspects of the laboratory supervisor's role in managing stress:

Eliminating or reducing stressors. Supervisors have limited control over physical working conditions, organizational policies, and compensation. They can minimize stress by following sound managerial practices in planning, organizing, directing, coordinating, and controlling and by using the managerial skills of delegation, communication, motivation, decision making, time management, and career development.

A bad leader is a potent stressor. Faith Shulruff identified pathologists and immediate supervisors as major laboratory stressors (others were equipment malfunction, work schedules, staff physicians, nurses, and phone calls).2 Negative leadership factors include procrastination, waffling, poor scheduling, favoritism, a laissez faire attitude, pessimism, and meddling.

Stress can be cushioned by good position descriptions, performance standards, orientation, training, and a flexible leadership style that responds to the professional and technical maturity of employees. Performance feedback that includes daily monitoring --but not meedling--coaching, counseling, and effective performance reviews are essential preventive measures.

We must all be alert to the stress produced by change. Laboratory managers run into problems when personnel are not conditioned for introduction of a computerized data processing system. Similarly, a new sophisticated instrument can wreak havoc on the night shift when medical technologists haven't been taught how to use it.

It is possible to temper the stress associated with a reduction in force. Share with the staff a complete and honest explanation of how and when the reduction will be implemented.

Laboratory managers must shield their staff members from angry physicians and their sometimes unreasonable demands. And, of course, sexual harassment cannot be tolerated.

Try to assume a positive attitude about the organization's economic future. Pessimism, gloom, and hand wringing add stress by eliminating a powerful emotional stability zone--job security.

Should you stress your employees? Some jobs, involving monotonous and boring tasks, need more stress. Work life becomes flat and sterile, and employees seek stimulation from outside activities. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law that deals with the relationship between stress and productivity, low stress results in low productivity, a lack of interest, poor work quality, poor motivation, absenteeism, and high turnover.

Beneficial stress comes best from job enrichment, delegation, expanded responsibility and authority, and challenging assignments. Stress can be healthy as long as the employee is not over-whelmed, his or her self-esteem is preserved or augmented, and extra efforts receive recognition.

Early diagnosis and treatment. Managers must be on the alert for signs of distress in both individuals and work groups. Early signs and symptoms are easily missed unless you practice MBWA (management by walking around). Watch and listen for the clues outlined in Figure II, and follow these steps:

1. Detect organizational stressors. In counseling sessions, performance evaluations, or exit interviews, ask employees what stressors they experienced. When a staff member puts in for a transfer, dig into the real reasons behind the request. Yates recommends asking employees to actually list their personal organizational stressors.1

2. Attack the stressors. Use a problem-solving approach to attack those stressors that you can control.

3. Look into other stress factors. Explore ways in which you may be pushing yourself and others beyond each individual's stress threshold.1

4. Apply more stress where needed. Perhaps you are hindering productivity by not exerting enough pressure on yourself or on others. If that's the case, it may be necessary to upgrade position descriptions and performance standards. Or you may have to delegate more.

5. Provide stress management seminars. Since most hospitals and local colleges offer short courses in stress management, guest speakers are readily available. Assertiveness training is very beneficial for laboratorians, who generally tend to be unassertive. Other worthwhile pursuits include aerobic dancing, recreational activities, and wellness programs.

6. Build a stress management library. Many excellent articles and publications teach very simple and effective ways to react to stress. These should be readily available to managers and technologists alike.

7. Create a relaxation area. Encourage the administration to provide a quiet, comfortable area for relaxation breaks. Overstressed employees will find more relief here than by going to the coffee shop and getting juiced up on nicotine and caffeine.

We all need stress--but in limited doses. The prevention and treatment of excessive stress is like that of any other affliction. We should shield our staff members from stress just as we would protect them from nonsocomial infection.

1. Yates, J.E. "Managing Stress: A Businessperson's Guide.' New York, AMACOM, 1979.

2. Shulruff, F. Getting at the roots of laboratory stress. MLO 15(4): 115-122, April 1983.

Suggested reading:

Bailey, J.T., and Walker, D.D. Rx for stress: One hospital's approach. Supervisory Management 27: 32-37, August 1982.

Barros, A. Combatting our old enemy, stress. MLO 14(4): 149-150, April 1982

Boe, G.P. How to deal with stress in the laboratory. MLO 13(4): 149-157, April 1981.

Donnelly, G.F. "RN's Survival Source Book: Coping with Stress.' Oradell, N.J., Medical Economics Books, 1983.

Fitzgibbon, R.J., and Snyder, J.R. "The Laboratory Manager's Problem Solver,' pp. 316-318. Oradell, N.J., Medical Economics Books, 1985.

Haber, S.L., and Inhorn, M.C. Beating burnout in the laboratory. MLO 13(11): 44-50, November 1981.

Ivanchevich, J.M., and Matteson, M.T. See you in court. . . . Employee claims for damages add to the high cost of job stress. Management Review 72: 9-13, November 1983.

Premeaux, S.R.; Mondy, R.W.; and Sharplin, A. Stress and the first-line supervisor. Supervisory Management 30:36-40, July 1985.

Roseman, E. How to recognize and treat the burned-out employee. MLO 14(4): 135-138, April 1982.

Smith, J. Coping with stress in a high-pressure occupation. MLO 12(9): 139-146, Septmeber 1980.

Table: Figure I Sources of stress at work

Table: Figure II Signs and symptoms of excessive stress
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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