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Managers: to beat workplace stress, get to know your employees

May 14, 2019

A Rotman professor studies how an individual’s sense of self, values, personality and past experience might shape attitudes around work and reactions to job stressors.

Photo of Professor Jia Lin Xie.Regardless of industry or job title, we can all relate to having a stressful day at work. Job stress is not a new problem, but it is a persistent and growing issue in North America. For instance, in Canada, workplace stress is a top cause of mental health issues, according a 2018 survey by the Globe and Mail and the human resources firm Morneau Shepell.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple fix.

“When managers of burnt-out employees ask me what they can do, it’s not a straightforward question,” explains Professor Jia Lin Xie.

While many organizations try to improve workplace morale or well-being through numerous interventions — such as redesigning jobs so that employees have more autonomy, offering professional development opportunities, or organizing stress management programs — these strategies might not address the core issues for all employees, says Xie.

“When it comes to job stress, it’s not a linear relationship: if you give employees more freedom or authority, they won’t necessarily become more relaxed,” explains Xie. “It has a lot to do with job fit.”

Throughout her academic career, Xie — who is the Magna Professor in Management and professor of Organizational Behavior and HR Management at Rotman — has uncovered many important insights related to job stress. In particular, she has looked at how an individual’s sense of self, values, personality and past experience might shape attitudes around work and reactions to job stressors.

Xie has a reputation for going deep: she was one of the first in her field to complete longitudinal studies that involved following workers over years, collecting psychological and physiological data. In a few studies, she recorded blood pressure readings and analyzed collected saliva and blood samples to measure the physiological effects of occupational stress.

Today, as a professor at Rotman, she is teaching the next generation of business leaders just how complex job stress is and what they can do to build effective workforces.

Why studying stress is complex

When she first started her academic career, Xie knew that job stress would be a complex research topic to tackle. While many researchers had focused on identifying specific work conditions that lead to stress, she correctly suspected that job stress research wasn’t just about eliminating certain stressors. 

She knew that the problem was much more complicated. In her everyday life, Xie had observed how people react differently to stress. Additionally, having studied and worked in North America and Asia, she noticed how cultural norms and values contribute to how employees define job stress.

Though much job stress research has largely relied on Western instruments in assessing subjects’ psychological reactions to stressors — such as emotional exhaustion, anxiety and depression — these tools aren’t perfect, says Xie.

“Attributes such as stress and psychological well-being are extremely difficult to accurately measure cross-culturally because people in non-Western cultures may downplay or deny some typical symptoms reported in the West,” she explains.

Xie decided to get at the root of job stress by looking in-depth at how job control, job demands and values interact and ultimately impact employee health. This work, which became a pivotal study in her career, involved following close to 496 Chinese workers over a three-year period. Xie collected questionnaire data (assessing employee workloads, sense of control on the job and individual values) and physiological data (measuring levels of circulating antibodies from blood samples and taking blood pressure readings).

Altogether, the results told a compelling story about job stress.

Xie and her collaborators found that alleviating job stress is about the individual: study participants who valued traditional ideas (hierarchy, respecting authority) tended to be in better health (fewer illnesses due to respiratory infections, healthy levels of circulating antibodies) when they had less job control. Meanwhile, workers who subscribed to less-traditional values tended to be healthier, and likely less stressed, when they were given more independence on the job.

“With job stress, there are many dimensions. If your labour force includes many different types of employees — some who embrace fairness and others who prioritize independence — they will find different features of the job stressful,” she explains. “So, there is no broad-stroke solution on how to make all jobs less stressful.”

“Get to know your employees. This will give you a roadmap on how to lead.”

—Jia Lin Xie, Professor, Organizational Behaviour and HR Management

Advice for managers

Xie’s research makes her uniquely suited to teach courses at the Rotman School, where she teaches classes in the Full-Time MBA program (Leading People in Organizations), in the GEMBA program (Leadership) and for the Judy Project (Leadership in Organizational Crisis and Global Leadership).

“The students I teach are preparing for fulfilling careers. They crave opportunities to do interesting, mentally-stimulating work. They will likely be the ones leading organizations,” she says. “Before they go off and pursue those roles, I want them to think deeply about job stress, job fit and leadership — and how they can go about creating healthier, productive workplaces.

Though combatting workplace stress is hard to tackle, she does offer some general advice.

“Make time to understand who your employees are, what drives them and how they work.” she explains. “Ultimately, get to know your employees. This will give you a roadmap on how to lead.”

Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Rotman Insights »

Meet the

Jia Lin Xie

Professor of Organizational Behaviour & HR Management

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