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How to Make Stress and Structure Work for Your Employees

Believe it or not, the simple fact of a corporate hierarchy — from CEOs to managers to supervisors to "regular" employees — can cause stress. So how can you make stress work for you and for the entire organization? The answer is to understand how the brain sees the corporate structure and to address the situation with that in mind.

Within every organization — with every group of people or animals — a hierarchy naturally forms. Wanting to know who’s in charge is part of human nature. But being at the bottom of the heap can affect the brain in many not-so-pleasant ways. Take a look at the following common progression of problems for the employee feeling stress from being the low man on the totem pole:

  1. Feeling uninvolved, unwanted, constantly reprimanded, useless, or helpless may induce chronic stress.

  2. Chronic stress may lead to an inability to think clearly and to health problems.

  3. Health problems may lead to absenteeism.

  4. Absenteeism means the job isn’t getting done.

  5. Returning to work after an illness may cause additional stress because work has progressed and the employee doesn’t feel informed.

  6. This new stress may cause further health problems.

Because stress is a response to a survival mechanism, another scenario is common for the employee on the bottom of the hierarchy. The reflexive or reactive part of the brain acts to protect you because it doesn’t know the difference between physical stress and emotional stress. Such action may cause the following kinds of unconscious thought and harmful actions:

  • Being at the bottom of the heap makes the person feel inadequate.

  • Whenever the person “on top” asserts her authority, this person feels even more insecure and inadequate.

  • This person may feel that everyone on the team knows his rank and be embarrassed by it.

  • In order to avoid scrutiny of any kind, this person works to make the one on top look inadequate.

  • The person creates a situation in which the top dog can’t continue her work, thus shifting negative attention from the bottom to the top.

This scenario isn’t pretty, but it happens universally. You probably remember someone in your elementary school being the class clown. The class clown’s job was to get the teacher off her task of teaching because teaching made him feel stupid. If the teacher isn’t teaching, even if he gets into trouble as a result, he doesn't look stupid. He looks instead like he doesn’t care, and he entertains the class because he believes they will like him for it.

At work, this scenario may play out a bit differently. One employee feels that he has been overlooked for a special position on the team. Because he feels he won’t receive proper credit for the work he has done, he wants to sabotage the project in some way. He disrupts each team meeting with needless questions and concerns about the launch.

Firing or transfering the person on the bottom won't help. Someone has to be on the bottom. The question is, how do you fix this? Can you make everyone equal? Yes, if the team can clearly see your vision and share it with you. If every member can get on board with your values and your mission, then the hierarchy may not be a problem.

Not everyone is unhappy at the bottom of the hierarchy. Many people don’t want the stress of trying to climb their way to the top. They do their jobs so that they make a living and can participate in whatever hobbies or interests they enjoy.

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