Airline employees aren't the only stressed workers

April 5, 2012: 11:22 AM ET

When a pilot or flight attendant wigs out, it makes headlines. Where you work, the signs of stress are no doubt subtler, but they signal turbulence ahead.

FORTUNE -- The news yesterday that Delta Airlines had yanked a flight attendant off a flight from Buffalo to Atlanta (because he was "acting disoriented", the airline said) -- less than a week after a JetBlue pilot suffered a breakdown in the cockpit at 20,000 feet -- might well make you wonder: What the heck is going on with airline employees these days?

It's hardly surprising they're showing symptoms of stress. The industry's financial woes have eroded employees' pay, benefits, pensions, and collective bargaining clout -- at the same time that workers are under more pressure than ever because of increased air traffic and heightened security standards.

If the stress that comes from working harder for less pay were confined to the skies, it would be easier for bosses in other businesses to shrug off. But, as anyone whose job survived the last few years of incessant layoffs already knows, it's everywhere.

Consider: A new survey by ComPsych, a Chicago-based provider of employee assistance programs, says that 56% of employees across a wide range of industries report that stress at work makes it harder for them to focus on tasks. About one-third said they had been late or absent because of feeling overwhelmed by work, and 21% said high levels of stress caused "errors and/or missed deadlines." About 15% reported trouble getting along with coworkers and bosses.

And those are just the most obvious signs of too much pressure. "As a manager, you also have to look at the overall vibe," says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist who heads up Dattner Consulting in New York City. "Let's say, for instance, that everyone used to greet each other with a friendly 'good morning' when they came into the office, and now they don't." It could be a sign your team is stretched too tight -- and something (or someone) is going to break: "Small things now could be a harbinger of big problems later."

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Dattner, who wrote a book called The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure, adds that, at some of his client companies, he sees another symptom of stress: People start feeling persecuted, hanging on to grudges, and "blaming each other when things go wrong or something doesn't get done." Like shipwrecked sailors stranded in a leaky lifeboat, the group may turn on its weakest or most vulnerable members -- or on (horrors) customers -- and the consequences can be nasty.

Obviously, none of this is good, but what can you do about it? Dattner recommends a few common-sense fixes. First, "let people know you care and you're listening. Ask them how it's going," he suggests. "Think of the workplace as a machine that needs constant monitoring in order to function well."

Are people's workloads distributed evenly, or are some employees more stressed than others because they've taken on too much? An overworked employee won't necessarily complain, in these times of persistent job insecurity, so bosses need to be extra-vigilant.

It may also help to bear in mind, Dattner says, that "creating success in an organization is a marathon, not a sprint. As much as you can, focus on the long term, and make decisions now that will make the business more sustainable over time," even if that means giving your key people "a sabbatical, or just a rest, or time to do pro bono work."

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While you're at it, don't forget to keep your own stress levels out of the red zone, which may require that you "go against your gut," Dattner says. "Stress makes us revert to habitual patterns, like working for 12 hours straight rather than taking an hour to go to the gym or take a walk."

But decades of research have shown that "taking a break, rather than pushing yourself to power through a grueling work schedule without stopping, actually enhances your productivity," Dattner points out.

"Sometimes you have to take what feels like a step backward in order to move two steps forward," he adds. "But under stress, people are often disinclined to hit the 'pause' button" -- even, or especially, when doing so could avert a heap of trouble later.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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