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The Truth Behind Workplace Stress

By: Drs. Dennis and Michelle Reina


The world’s largest job search agency, Monster.com, released survey results in which 42% of U.S. respondents revealed they had “purposely changed jobs due to a stressful work environment.” Moreover, these respondents reported that 66% of their employers had done “nothing” to alleviate the stress that had precipitated their resignations. The “epidemic of stress” these numbers represent prioritize the need to unpack the root causes of stress in our workplaces, and discover what we can do to mitigate them.

What stressors force otherwise dedicated employees to say, “Enough is enough,” and trade their security for the uncertainty of the job hunt? A key driver is the breakdown of trust in relationships. These breakdowns in trust affect everyone, regardless of rank or level of responsibility. And they are created by everyone, even people who are careful to manage their relationships with great professionalism and tact.

Often, people cite glaring trust-breaking behaviors such as cover-ups, embezzlement, or reckless disclosure of trade secrets as the most egregious contributors to workplace stress. However, what are less obvious are the small, subtle behaviors that accumulate over time and contribute just as heavily to your organization’s systemic stress. These behaviors are ubiquitous and ingrained in day-to-day interactions.

Decisions are made without getting feedback from colleagues and subordinates--even though their work could be affected by the outcomes of those choices. Issues are talked about to everyone but the person who’s causing them. Work is taken on without respect for the time and resources that will be needed to finish the job. Celebrations are populated with people who were conspicuously absent during the hard times. Private information is shared. Loose ends aren’t tied up. Opportunities for professional development are hoarded.

You may not think of these behaviors as “trust breakers” or stress producers.  It is easy to become conditioned to the subtle behaviors that signal unrealistic expectations, unmet obligations, and unmatched contributions, and lose sight of how they compromise your own and others’ trust on a daily basis. However, that doesn’t mean those small letdowns aren’t adding up and affecting you, your stress levels, and the quality of your work--and the work and stress levels of others.

A threat to developing a low stress workplace is the presence of minor, unintentional, seemingly innocent trust-breaking behaviors. Each time trust is broken--even in the smallest way--your ability and willingness to reach out and connect in the future are whittled away, contributing to a systemic level of stress in your workplace interactions. Over time, your own and others’ confidence and commitment is diminished.

When this situation is mirrored across your organization, the effects are significant. Collaboration takes a free fall, innovation grinds to a halt, results are compromised, and profits suffer. What begins as a mantra of, “This is just a stressful place: that’s how it is around here,” transitions into “Is it like this everywhere?” which steamrolls into “I’m not going to take this anymore. I’m leaving.” Turnover increases--as does the population of “walking wounded”--those who stick with the organization, but “check out” just as assuredly as those who leave.

The good news is that it’s never too late to begin building trust and decreasing stress in your workplace. Because trust is broken by identifiable behaviors, it can be rebuilt by identifying and practicing the opposite of those behaviors. Gossiping, finger pointing, making decisions without others’ input, withholding information, taking others for granted, failing to make expectations clear: these are all specific behaviors that can be “unlearned” and replaced with trust-inducing actions.

The other good news is that because trust impacts every individual at every responsibility level, each and every person can contribute in a meaningful way to growing the level of trust in their workplaces. While top leadership must take the first steps to shepherd in a culture of trust, they don’t – and can’t – do all of the work themselves. You have to do your part to help build trust and decrease stress in your own workplace relationships. Trust begins with you.

To help you in your journey towards a trust-filled, lower-stress workplace, we’ve identified three dimensions of trust called the “Three Cs of Trust”: Trust of Character, Trust of Communication, and Trust of Capability. Practicing the trust-building behaviors within these dimensions will lead to reduced stress and more productive, fruitful interactions across all of your relationships--both at home and at work.

Let’s begin with Trust of Character. You build this form of trust by doing what you say you will do. You keep agreements, manage expectations, and offer others the opportunity to grow and learn by delegating to and supporting them. As you practice the behaviors that build this form of trust, you build a reputation as a generally trustworthy person who can be counted on to behave consistently. This consistency removes ambiguity and doubt (and the stress that those vacillations bring) from your relationships, freeing you to work in a more fluid, rapid, and collaborative fashion.

The next dimension of trust--Trust of Communication--is built by being sensitive to how, when, and what you share with others. When you’ve built this form of trust, others believe what you say to be true, and they know they can trust you to keep confidences or share key information according to a high ethical standard. Practicing the behaviors that build Trust of Communication lowers your own and others’ stress levels by removing the “did I share too much?” question from the table.

The final dimension of trust is the Trust of Capability. You build this form of trust as you acknowledge and appreciate others’ skills and abilities. When others know that their input will be valued and their growth supported, they feel empowered. This empowerment reduces stress. High Trust of Capability greases the wheels of productivity, innovation, and collaboration. Tight deadlines and high-impact deliverables become spurs to the wit, rather than occasions for mounting, unmitigated stress.

While it’s never too late to address compromised trust and its attendant stressors, you shouldn’t confuse opportunity with simplicity. Building (or rebuilding) trust is not simple or easy. It requires your focus, energy, and effort. However, as you consider the alternative to tackling the mountains of trust breaking, stress-inducing behaviors practiced in your organization, we ask: Can you afford not to make this investment?

About the Author(s)

Drs. Dennis and Michelle Reina are co-founders of Reina, a Trust Building Consultancy. Considered pioneers in the field of trust, the clients of the Reinas include American Express, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, the US Army, Harvard, Yale, and Walt Disney World. Their best-selling business books, Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace and Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace, won Nautilus and Axiom Business Book Awards.