Don’t Aspire to a Stress-Free Workplace

zen nurseI recently came across this Huffington Post article on ways to boost employee engagement. While most of the author’s recommendations are grounded in established research, one in particular made me do a double-take.

#4 Eliminate Stress. Impossible deadlines or excessive workloads will erode job satisfaction for even the most dedicated team members…Strive to create a stress-free environment by setting realistic deadlines and keeping projects manageable.

I’ve been training physicians and managers in healthcare for years. If I stood in front of an audience and told them that to achieve engagement they needed to eliminate stress for their employees, I’d get laughed out of the room. Recommendations like this are what cause leaders at all levels to view engagement as nothing more than an unachievable ideal.

A stress-free workplace is a pipe-dream in healthcare. Running a busy clinic, working as a team, and taking care of patients and families is hard work. It challenges us, tests us, triggers our emotions, and requires effort. And yes, this work frequently (for some, constantly) includes stress. It’s called work for a reason.

A better recommendation would have been Manage the Workload. This language provides a specific action for the leader in pursuit of an attainable, realistic goal. Keeping projects manageable and setting appropriate deadlines (recommendations from the article’s author) are important parts of managing the workload. So, too, is making sure that the expectation of what one person can reasonably accomplish is, in fact, reasonable. That’s why front-line leaders must keep their fingers on the pulse of who is doing what and avoid “piling on” an employee who is maxed out. Leaders must also help personnel manage stress in the moment by encouraging emotionally intelligent “self-talk,” taking on more themselves, or just being a friendly ear. Managing the workload also requires that organizations provide appropriate staffing and resources and that they actively support a healthy work/life balance to minimize the impact of workplace stress overall.

Eliminate stress? Never gonna happen. Manage the workload, though, and you’ll put your team on a path to engagement.

[What do you think? Is it possible to entirely eliminate stress from the workplace? Should leaders try? Post your thoughts in the comments box below!]

Joe Mull gives physicians, managers, and healthcare teams the soft skills they need to navigate the challenges they face every day. His new book Cure for the Common Leader: What Physicians & Managers Must Do to Engage & Inspire Healthcare Teams is available on For more information on Joe’s programs and services, visit

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