If you keep losing good employees, it’s possible the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the booming economy, but in yourself. Barbara Bailey Reinhold, author of Toxic Work and director of the Career Development Office at Smith College, recently spoke with us on how IT companies can turn toxic, the stresses of Internet start-ups, and why tech executives should pay attention when employees’ attitudes turn sour.
Reinhold: That the bottom line is: employee stress costs employers tons of money. For instance, in the years of 1995 to 1999, actual workplace stress tripled, and so people who are now kind of getting around to Toxic Work are saying that the book came out about two or three years ahead of its time. The effect is so obvious now.
One study showed, for instance, that workplace stress costs up to $750ayearperemployee in terms of lost productivity, health care costs, and all that sort of stuff. [Managers] need to know that if they don’t mentor their folks in how to take good care of themselves at work, they will, in fact, pay a very heavy price down the road—not only in direct costs, but also in terms of lower productivity and inability to meet their own goals.
Reinhold: You have to select [employees] very carefully, and I know that’s hard to do when there’s less than 4 percent unemployment, but you can screen in the hiring system for residual victimhood. The people who are negative, people who blame their employers, people who move around a whole lot and say, “Well, it just wasn’t the right place for me” rather than, “I was looking for more growth opportunities.”
I think that once people come onboard, from the first day they arrive in your supervisory discussions with them,…you can say that one of the things this organization is about is constant growth and change and people taking responsibility for not only getting the work done but taking care of themselves in the process.
Then I would ask them during your period supervisory reviews, “What’s going on? How are you managing the work? How are you getting it done? Are there some ways you could be more efficient?”
If you’d like to sample some of Barbara Bailey Reinhold’s book, click here to read an excerpt from Toxic Work. If you're interested in buying a copy of the book, click here.
Reinhold: The first thing you do is don’t talk much—mostly listen. When I coach executives about how to move into a new job, I tell them to go and be “social workers” for at least the first month. They should walk in and schedule an individual session with everybody and ask questions like, “What has worked well for you here? What have you really enjoyed about your work in this organization? What are the things you’re proudest of? What are the things you’d really like to keep on doing? What are the things that you know make a difference for the effectiveness of our product or service?” and get them to talk a lot. Schedule at least a half hour for these sessions.
In the second half of the meeting, they should ask questions like, “We know that nobody knows the workflow like the people on the floor; What should we be doing different? Where are the bottlenecks? Where are the problems? What doesn’t work for you?”
Reinhold: There are good parts and bad parts. The bad parts are, of course, that in an Internet dot-com start-up, there’s just too much to do too fast. That’s problematic, but the antidote is there also. Before a company becomes huge and bureaucratic, the healthiest thing you can do for anybody anywhere is to make them feel as if they’re in charge of their own work lives. Start-ups have a chance to do that because the company is making all new rules.
For instance, one of the things in my life I do is work for monster.com as their online career coach. When I was last at the Monster headquarters, Jeff Taylor, the CEO, showed me one of the things he has done to make life easier for his employees. Monster stocks a whole lounge with free food all day long. The company mentality and the company norm are that you can go down to the lounge and eat and think and hang out and put your feet up and just take some control back in your own day anytime you want. People are meant to move around and be in charge of how they are in the company, which is very different from where I’m from. Bureaucracies can’t do that, but a start-up has all the power in the world to do that.
Reinhold: I think they’re going to be in a hell of a mess because once you get to a certain number of employees, it’s very different to run a larger company than a smaller company, and they’re going to have to bring in a lot of help or be in big trouble. There’s a phenomenon that I’m not sure I wrote about directly in Toxic Work, but I talk about it a lot in the consulting that I do and motivational speeches. It’s something called stressaddiction. Stress addiction is like any other addiction. It’s a short-term high that you get from working too hard and that you get from imposing deadlines on yourself.
Particularly in high-tech start-ups, there are a lot of stress-addicted people who love that high, and they just keep going until they collapse. Now they’re younger, so they don’t collapse as soon as the older folks would, but it’s just like a drunk. A drunk’s judgment is terribly impaired, and when you have stress-addicted people at the helm of organizations, their judgment is terribly impaired. They can’t see long-term consequences and they can’t prioritize.
Reinhold: They need to get a coach, somebody who understands this stuff and can help them manage not only the strategic parts of their job, but can help them reconstruct their own lives.
Reinhold: Everybody’s scared. We have really fancy brick-and-mortar companies coming to us saying, “They’re stealing our folks. What are we going to do?” and panic is very toxic. So I think that the e-commerce phenomenon really has shaken up workplace environments where they haven’t felt vulnerable in a long, long time, and that’s scary for the people who work there.
Reinhold: They should talk about it and say, “Listen, this is pretty scary, but we can handle it.”
Being a manager is not very different from being a parent. The parent’s role is to be supportive and have high standards. The manager puts those two together so that employees feel supported and know that the manager expects them to do well, but at the same time that there’s a captain on the ship. There are icebergs out here, and employees want to know the captain isn’t drunk. The captain is there saying, “Here is what we need to look out for.” It’s an amazing thing.
Reinhold: They need to figure out if their folks really believe in what they do. There may be people in the company who shouldn’t stay there, who should be counseled out of what they do if it’s just not where their heart is anymore, no matter what their skill level.
There are also ways in which organizations can do more to be linked to the community. If you have workers over 40, this group generally wants to know that there’s some meaning in their work. They are more likely to want to know that than younger workers, and there are things that companies can do to play up the mission of the company and have people able to identify with that.
In the intelligence line, you have a very steep learning curve in your industry, so I don’t think that would be a problem for you.
The T, the touchandtraining, is going to be a huge problem because you work too damn long. There’s no time to exercise. There needs to be permission and time for people to pay attention to their bodies, not go from their larynx to their right wrist, and life is all in the action of your thumb on the mouse or whatever. Leaders have to put their money where their mouth is and tell people that it’s really critical to have a physical life, to be a body as well as a mind.
Again, the attributionandtheattitude part is if you’ve got some non-optimists hanging around, then I think you want to get those folks to some coaching. We think about coaching for executives, but there are all kinds of performance coaches for middle-range people as well. You say, “This is a problem, here. The attitude of expecting things to go wrong, expected to be overworked, is really getting in your way here. I’m going to assign you some coaching. If you want to stay with us, you’re really going to need to make some changes there.”
Of course, the love part with the relationships is fairly easy. A really interesting book by a psychologist in Boston—the book was called She Works, He Works—followed 200 dual-career couples and discovered that the single greatest antidote or preventive measure for workplace stress getting out of hand was the quality of workers’ relationships outside of work. So things like encouraging people to take weekends off, encouraging people to pay attention to the people at home—kids, spouses, partners, family members. Some companies have gone so far as to check the parking lot on weekends to be sure that nobody’s there. You have to say it and mean it. A workforce that works all the time, has no relationships, doesn’t ever exercise, [and] eats pizza for dinner at 10:00 every night is absolutely going to collapse.
Reinhold: One of the things that they can do is have a clear sense of what the five VITAL things are and just ask very targeted questions.
For instance, on the touch and training one, they could ask things like “Tell me, what does your company do to encourage people to take good care of themselves?” If the interviewer laughs, that gives you some evidence. If they say, “Well, we built a fitness center two years ago, and nobody ever uses it,” that gives you some evidence there.
They might say, “Well, we believe that’s really important, too, and so we subsidize health club dues.” You can just tell.
Because this is a time of low unemployment, people can afford to be a little choosier.
We’d like to know how you revitalize your staff if they’re suffering from workplace malaise and what you do to keep your workplace from becoming a toxic one. Please post a comment below, or drop us a note.