Stress – Tips for the Servant Leader Part 1: The Cost of Occupational Stress to Your Team

The cost of occupational stess“The truth is we should minimize negative stress in the workplace if we want to maximize productivity. If you really want to get the best with your people, from your people, then actually minimizing work-related or occupational stress is really something worth looking at.” Colin Buckland

Stress and the Christian Servant Leader

A goal of the Christian servant leader is to enable his people to achieve their full potential. One of his enemies in this endeavour is stress because, unchecked it sucks the motivation and energy out of people, leaving them unable to come close to their best.

There is another dimension from the Christian perspective, Paul plainly instructs Christians to deal with each other in humility, with gentleness, consideration and compassion, looking out for each other’s best interests.   In this light the Christian leader has a significant issue to deal with when the people under his supervision become so stressed that they cannot function effectively.  Not only is there a responsibility for the well being of his people, he has a responsibility not to be the cause of the stress in the first place.

It is here that leadership style is important.

Organisationally, the consequence of operating in a stressful environment can be significant and, because organisations are populated with people,  it can arise just as easily in the Christian sphere as the secular. This i9s, therefore an issue for para-church organisations and team ministry churches alike. In fact in the Christian domain there are additional spiritual and material factors at work that can make it more prevalent.

The Organisational Cost of Occupational Stress

Stress dissipates energy uselessly, seizes-up ability and constricts capacity. That is why it not only reduces the ability of staff to perform, and therefore causes an organisation to under perform, it drives up sickness, absenteeism and staff churn. All of this prevents organisations from delivering the goods while driving up costs.

In the Christian sphere, where organisations are heavily dependent upon donors, finances are severely restricted and every penny possible is spent on achieving ministry goals.  This demands that such organisations deliver maximum effectiveness in order not to waste precious and scarce resources. Stress mitigates against this.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive reported that stress caused 14 million working days to be lost in Great Britain in 2006. In 2009 they reported that over 400,000 people reported levels of stress that made them ill and that 16.7% of the workforce thought that their job was extremely stressful, that’s about 3 people in 20. They estimate that stress accounts for 10.5 million lost working days a year in Great Britain. In 2000 Wheatley reported that 75% of executives say that stress adversely affects their health, happiness and home life as well as their performance at work.

The 10,000 foot view of the symptoms of a stressed organisation are:

  • Decreasing performance
  • Increasing levels of sickness
  • Increasing absenteeism
  • Increase in staff churn

There are other symptoms and effects too which will emerge as we work through this series. Besides the obvious productivity and financial costs of stress on the organisation there is a potential legal cost. In the UK, under health and safety legislation, employers have a duty to undertake risk assessments and manage activities to reduce the incidence of stress at work.

The Origins of Occupational Stress

Occupational stress essentially arises under many situations, for example when an individual is:

  • Required, or feels it necessary, to perform, in a way that is beyond their ability, capability or skill level.
  • Unable to exercise control over a situation.
  • Asked to complete an excessive volume of work
  • Required to carry out some task for which they do not have the necessary resources to complete the task.
  • Faced with the actual or implied consequences of failure. This may be particularly true where vital aid is provided to people in areas such as care, rehabilitation and relief services.
  • Confronted with change, even if it is well managed
  • Bullied or feels bullied, whether intended or inadvertent, can give rise to stress.

The pressures that cause stress can arise from explicit demands placed on staff or the implicit demands exerted by the force of a manager’s behaviour or the culture of the organisation.

Speaking with me Colin Buckland explains how this happens: “One of the things that is more important than most people realize is what I would call the corporate culture. It is virtually always driven by the leaders, and it starts with the most senior person, and it runs through the senior leadership. How they behave, and how they respond in certain circumstances, will determine how other people will respond.

So, let’s say you model starting work at 6 AM and not leaving until 7 PM, you take few breaks through the day and you do it day-in and day-out. You’ve got a lot of productivity and you churn out the work. You may enjoy the feeling that somehow you’re a bit of a hero in the organisation.  Actually, you are modelling a style that is probably going to be quite destructive for other people.

Typically, what happens is a leader sets a way of being and the people who report to that leader will begin to emulate that style. Now bear in mind that not everybody is the same, not everybody’s got the same capacity for work or even for stress, but they will try and be you. So your modelling is enormously important as is what the company measures.

If we reward people, for example, who work long, long hours, it will go around the organization that long, long hours is what this organization wants.  So, people will start to try and do that. In the early stages we may think, “Hey, this is great, people are really throwing themselves into work.” But this is a false economy, this is not going to last, because a lot of these people are going to burnout and they’re going to get increasingly less productive over time.”

What to do about stress in the Workplace

Plainly high levels of stress are not desirable from either a Christian or an economic perspective. They have the ability to drag down your organisation’s productivity and effectiveness as well as destroy the health of staff.

So what is to be done about it?

There are lots of resources available from organisations such as the UK’s Health and Safety Executive and CIPD (the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development). You can also follow this Creative Leader Bulletin series “Stress – Tips for the Servant Leader” which will answer the following questions about stress, enabling you to reduce and avoid stress in your team to recover and maintain productivity and performance and, identify and reduce stress in your own situation.

  • What are the causes, symptoms and consequences of stress?
  • How can I identify stress in my organisation or team?
  • How can I reduce stress levels in my team?
  • How can I identify and respond to my own stress?


Take a moment to reflect on what you see in your team or organisation. Do your people seem stressed? Do you recognise any of the factors discussed in this article?

A good servant leadership practice is to get out among your people  and discover how they are doing. This will help you confirm your views about stress in your team.

How do you deal with stress? Do you enjoy it, thrive on it? Are you setting an example that is pressurising your people?


Image: AndYaDontStop