Workplace stress is about clarity. It is about priorities, capacity, and expectations. When you get those three right, the work environment is much less stressful. If you get it wrong, you’re gonna have a bad time. It is not rocket science, but it’s hard.
For the purposes of this post, I plucked an academic publication at random from the ether. The Victorian Government organisation, VicHealth, conducted an excellent review in 2012 of workplace stress. Not surprisingly, one of the high-level findings was:
Workplace stress refers to distress
resulting from a situation where
the demands of a job are not matched
by the resources provided to get the
That’s correct, of course. Yet in my personal experience, this type of workplace stress can be sub-divided further into four constituent concepts. When people feel overwhelmed, have too much to do, not enough time to do it in and are uncertain about expectations, they have problems with at least one of the following four elements:
Priorities + Capacity + Expectations = Clarity
That’s not a literal equation, just a metaphorical way of abstracting the concept into a recognisable form.
When you get the Priorities right, you know what work is most important and impactful for the organisation. As a result, you can focus your efforts in the right place and, in good conscience, let less important tasks slip. If you find that you have too many equally urgent priorities, you either haven’t prioritised well enough, or you have a problem with Capacity or Expectations. Alternatively, it may be that The Roof Is On Fire, but that is (usually) a separate point-in-time problem rather than a fault of your overall management process.
When you get Capacity right, you know how roughly much output you are capable of achieving in the time available. This lets you align the amount of work you can produce with the amount of effort required to solve the most important Priority. Sure, estimation mistakes and unforeseen complexities in tasks are common, but there are always finite limits on output. If you have too much to do, you either got the Priorities or Capacity wrong, or Expectations are too high.
When you get the Expectations right, you have aligned the organisation’s Expectations with what you have Prioritised and have Capacity to produce. If you have an accurate handle on Priorities and Capacity and have communicated these well, unreasonable Expectations shouldn’t be a problem. However, if Expectations seem too high, and you have the right Priorities and are using your Capacity efficiently, you need to realign Expectations. If Expectations stay too high for too long, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Result = Clarity
When you have Clarity, you have solved the above three problems. You have approximately aligned the organisation’s Expectations and Priorities with your Capacity to produce. When this happens, people are happy with what you deliver and you succeed in your role. Clarity is not a one-off thing to be obtained. It is the outcome of a process of regular communication and realignment of Priorities, Capacity, and Expectations as new information comes to light. It’s not just about your boss but also about the organisation, the team and other stakeholders in the business being up to speed on the latest developments in your domain.
Of course, there are many other facets that contribute to stress that I haven’t discussed here. How do you decide what is the highest Priority? What if you need to improve your team’s Capacity to meet a normal level of Expectations? How about if you can’t realign Expectations because you don’t have a strong relationship with the person setting them? What if you don’t know where your work fits in the bigger picture and thus can’t solve for Priorities, Capacity, or Expectations?
These are all real problems, but they are not the same problem, and are a story for another time.
Food for thought.