Relationships Cause (and Assist) with Distress in the Workplace

Just watch or listen to the news and you definitely get a sense there is distress in the workplace. In my last posting, I listed one possible reason for why employees may be experiencing some job distress; role ambiguity. Today I want to share another possibility for some of the distress; role conflict. William L. White defines role conflict in his book The Incestuous Workplace as the experience of incongruous demands from two or more simultaneously held roles.

At first glance this seems pretty straightforward. If I report to two or more supervisors, there is always plenty of opportunity for role conflict. If my multiple supervisors don’t agree on what they are asking of me then it will obviously lead to me being conflicted about how to satisfy the multiple demands. Over the years I have personally experienced this type of role conflict a few times. As with the source of this conflict, the solution may appear simple. I just need to get the two or more supervisors to talk with each and agree on what they expect from me. However, appearance may not always be related to reality.

Situations that can really muddy the water might include any of the following;

  • perhaps the two supervisors don’t like each other, or
  • the employee thinks he or she is filling two half-time positions, but each supervisor expects far more than half-time for his or her portion of the position, or
  • the nature of the work for each supervisor is in direct opposition to the other, or
  • the political power between the two supervisors is such that the employee is caught in the middle, or
  • any host of other factors that leads to a conflict for the employee.

Dealing with any one of these can become very difficult for the employee, thus leading to distress in the workplace.

However, in addition to conflict caused by multiple supervisors, there is also the role conflict caused by multiple expectations even when there are not multiple supervisors. Working for the public definitely places an employee in the public eye with the employee being conscious of the public’s expectations all the time. Perhaps the public’s expectations of what needs to be accomplished do not align with the employee’s supervisor’s expectations. While the employee knows for certain what must be accomplished to maintain his or her job, the employee must also face the public every day in work settings and in non-work settings. The employee can experience the conflict simply by going to the grocery store and run into a member of the public who doesn’t like what is being done.

These two situations don’t even include the issue of job demands versus family demands. Anyone who works in a public job and has a family knows all too well the built in conflicts with these two roles. If there is existing distress in the family then there will be additional distress at work and vice versa.

With all this role conflict opportunity, is it any wonder employees are feeling distressed on the job? So how do we begin to alleviate some of this distress?

Well, one really healthy way to handle this job distress is with our relationships. That’s right the very thing that may be creating some of this distress can be a means for coping and alleviating it as well. Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence, indicates that the quality of our relationships makes a significant impact in our ability to handle distress. Are our relationship warm and connecting at an emotional level or are they superficial and emotional distance? Are they supportive and caring or filled with negativity? It may not be the number of acquaintances, but the level of the connection of those relationships we do have that matters most. In addition, the quality of our relationships is connected to our health; as would be expected if they can help alleviate the distress.

Until next time, take a look at your stress level and your relationships and ask yourself if you need to create a few more supportive connections in order to handle those conflicting expectations from those multiple supervisors or clientele.