The cost of Distraction

Nora Akins

Working in an environment with competing objectives under tight deadlines and fear of punishment is a too common description of work today. A few high stress occupations are challenging whether the results of job stress (i.e. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) qualifies as Worker’s Compensation claims. The British Medical Journal linked job stress to cardio-vascular disease in 2002; American studies recently validated this information. Chronic stress increases cortisol which creates inflammation and is linked to disease. Previously blaming the person’s reaction to stress (i.e. the Type A personality), now findings reveal organizations can make changes to reduce stress.

An individual’s response to a situation has a lot to do with how the stress is processed as well as the resulting performance. Teaching employees how to manage stress may not be an employer’s responsibility. However, basic neuroscience teaches us when the brain is focused on avoiding pain or punishment; it has little energy remaining to focus on performance.

Employers are responsible when systems at work are punitive rather than reward based; when incivility is accepted and roles and responsibilities are not clear. Those employers will foster employees who are too distracted to perform well. It is hard to visualize a peak performer who is waiting to cry. Business Insider, June 2016 said, Workplace stress is costing employers $300-billion a year; Forbes said $190 billion based primarily on absenteeism, accidents and insurance. Consider the cost of distraction.

Achieving peak performance requires psychological safety according to neuroscientists Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hagemann. They suggest creating an environment of appreciation, respect and acceptance; where achievement is rewarded.

A company must recognize the value each position and person plays. This can only be achieved with role clarity; understanding where each position’s responsibility starts and ends and what purpose it serves. Behavioral expectations of respect and appreciation require just as much thought.

A company striving for peak performance has behavioral expectations spelled out, taught and reinforced. These are spelled out in the employee handbook and job description. Hiring managers should recruit people who already exhibit these behaviors.

Training starts on the employee’s first day as the employee is observed interacting with co-workers and customers. Supervisors must be models of the behavioral expectations in order to positively reinforce the behaviors through evaluation and coaching starting on day one.

Trained supervisors who genuinely care about people manage with reward and coaching rather than threat and discipline, ideally valuing people for who they are first and then for what they bring to the organization. Everyone should be held accountable regardless of their position or tenure with the company. Having supervisors hold themselves and others accountable begins with a clearly articulated set of priorities. Up-to-date, realistic job descriptions will contain these priorities and provide the information to remove conflicting objectives. Competency based job standards that include behavioral expectations are the backbone of a healthy and respectful workplace where peak performance can be achieved.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management, provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or

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