Posted by: arijnovick | January 25, 2010

Dr. Ari Novick Featured in HRWire.com Magazine January 2010

Analysis & Perspective 1/19/2010

When the Pressure Becomes Too Much

Paula Santonocito

It’s a shocking legacy for Europe’s third-largest phone company. Over an 18-month period, 25 France Telecom employees committed suicide. Reportedly, at least a dozen others attempted but failed to take their own lives.

Stress on the job

Unions and others blame job-related pressure for the deaths, indicating that a comprehensive restructuring program, which involved mandatory job changes, some requiring relocation, created an intolerable work environment.

Management communication style appears to be a contributing factor as well. The Guardian reports that Didier Lombard, France Telecom chairman and chief executive officer, told employees at a management meeting that “those who think they can just stick to their routine and not worry about a thing are sorely mistaken.”

For approximately 37 employees, the workplace changes and management’s approach to implementing them were too much to handle. And there is no mistaking that job-related pressure was a factor contributing in the string of employee suicide and suicide attempts. The Guardian reports that a number of staff members were found dead in the workplace, and others left notes blaming the company for “management by terror” and bullying.

For HR and other management professionals, the tragic occurrences at France Telecom certainly call attention to the issue of job-related-stress and employee mental health.

Variety of factors

Although he doesn’t believe workplace stress would likely be the only factor in an employee suicide, Ari Novick, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and owner of AJ Novick Group, a leading national provider of anger and stress management training, says it may be a contributing cause that could push people to a dark place.

A person who is potentially suicidal typically has other issues in his or her life, Novick tells HRWire, and may suffer from depression. However, he also says that for someone who has multiple life stressors coming together, a work-related situation could be the final stressor. “You never quite know what pushes someone over the edge,” he says.

Novick also points out that job loss is among the top stressors, right up there with divorce and death of a family member.

Therefore, if an employee has other major stressors in his or her life, pressures at work and the threat of job loss may be more difficult to bear.

“The creation of stress is when you have more demands placed on you than resources to meet those demands,” Novick says.

The difference comes down to the person who has better coping skills to deal with stress. “When you don’t know what to do, death is always an option. It’s not the best option, but it is an option,” Novick says.

Seeing the signs

How do HR and other management professionals know if an employee has unmanageable stress?

There is no clear-cut method for determining what may push a person over the edge; indeed, Novick says sometimes the little things can be triggers. Nevertheless, it helps to be alert to potential signs.

Therefore, Novick recommends that management take note of an employee who is complaining a lot; an employee who is sick a lot and still comes to work; an employee who has mental health issues; and an employee who has other serious life issues going on.

Complaining a lot may involve complaining to coworkers, he says. If complaining involves suicidal ideation, which is thoughts of suicide and/or plans to commit suicide, obviously there is an issue.

Employer’s role

But what can, and what should, HR and management professionals do to provide support?

An employer with an EAP program should make workers aware there are external resources to help them manage stress and life issues, Novick says. But creating or contracting for a program and then putting the word out about it aren’t enough.

Resources should be easy to access, Novick says, and not require pages of paperwork or dozens of phone calls. They should also allow for anonymity and respect employee privacy.

In addition, messaging about available resources should be ongoing, both to serve as reminders and to coincide with times employees might most need the services. When a company is facing difficult financial times that affect the workforce, whether in terms of pay and benefits cuts or job losses, employee stress levels will likely be elevated.

Services can go a long way toward providing support. However, other components are important as well.

“Some of it is the culture of the company,” Novick says. “Is the company looking out for the wellbeing of employees or is it a company that doesn’t care?”

It starts with top management, who set the tone, but it depends on individual bosses, too.

If you have a boss who doesn’t seem to care and you’re forced to be there to pay the mortgage or send kids through school, it can be very stressful, says Novick; it’s a relationship you might not be able to end, unlike a personal friendship or relationship that goes bad.

In France, the situation took an extreme turn, where employees decided they’d rather die than to continue working the kind of hours they were working with no support.

“This particular incident should be an eye-opener for employers around the world to recognize that the settings they create for employees have to be safe,” says Novick.

For individual managers, it can also serve as reminder. Novick points out that when you have a boss you really like, who you feel has your back, you’re going to feel better. By contrast, if a person is in a work situation where making a minor mistake means his or her job can be eliminated, it can be nerve-wracking.

“Creating a culture of compassion is really important,” Novick says.

Work, depending on the kind of job, can be inherently stressful, he explains, citing deadline-driven and sales positions as examples. Even though it comes with the territory, management has to be aware of the potential toll pressure can take on employees.

“Work should never be a life-threatening situation for anyone,” Novick says. “I think both human resources and the managers of these companies need to make it clear not only that they care, but they want to make sure employees are taken of.”

He acknowledges that particularly in a bad economy, when companies get into survival mode, it’s easy to let certain practices go by the wayside. But arguably in such an environment support is even more critical.

“My advice to companies is you cannot ever forget that your employees’ health and morale have to take precedent almost over everything; it’s almost as important as the air they breathe,” Novick says.

Contact: Ari Novick, Ph.D., licensed psychotherapist and owner AJ Novick Group, ari@ajnovickgroup.com or http://www.ajnovickgroup.com

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