For the average distribution center worker, it's another day, another hefty dose of job stress. You walk in the door and your brain shifts right into overload—trailers have arrived early and the unloading's already behind schedule. Or you're assailed by a supervisor reminding you that pick times will be closely monitored today because of an unusually tight schedule. Or the trucks are late and there's nothing to do but wait for the inevitable crunch. Or you're ordered to cover for someone who's out with the flu but can't get anyone to tell you precisely what you're supposed to do.
And even if you did know exactly what you were supposed to be doing, all too often you can't count on getting the tools and help you need. Two of the four lift trucks are out of commission. Cramped aisles make it impossible to move inventory and equipment around. Vacancies and absenteeism have left the facility pitifully understaffed. You're feeling the strain—both physical and emotional—and nobody seems to care.
No wonder between 20 and 75 percent of all warehouse workers leave their jobs within one year of their hire date. Though some learn to tolerate the stress, huge numbers succumb to the work fatigue. Those burned-out employees eventually respond in one of two ways: they try to wrest more control over the situation or they leave (think fight or flight).
Filling the vacancies can be both difficult and expensive—the cost of replacing a single employee is estimated to be in the thousands of dollars. Alarmed by the high turn over, distribution center managers from Klickitat to Kittery are looking for ways to fight stress and hold on to their workers.
But to fight stress, you have to understand what causes it and who's most affected. For that, we went right to the source, surveying 667 workers in seven distribution centers (see sidebar for a look at the respondent pool). Specifically, we wanted to know the following: How bad is the stress and burnout? Do stress and burnout levels vary based upon employee job tenure, overall job experience in the industry, work shift (early/day/late), or job status (full-time, part-time or temporary)? And most important of all, what can be done about it?
As bad as it gets?
To get an idea of how much stress DC workers are under, we asked survey participants seven questions related to pressures of the workplace— how often they had "been upset because of something that happened at work," for example, or how often they "found that they could not cope with all of the things they had to do." Stress levels were measured on a scale of 1 to 7—1 = never and 7 = every day. Researchers then averaged the numeric scores for each employee's answers to compute an overall stress score for that individual.
We conducted the "burnout" survey in much the same way. Participating employees were asked nine questions such as how often they "felt used up at the end of the workday," "failed to make an effective contribution to the organization," and "felt emotionally drained from [their] work." Responses were again scaled from 1 to 7, with 1 = never and 7 = every day. The respondents' answers to the nine questions were summed to create an overall burnout score for each employee.
Overall, respondents reported feeling a moderate level of stress— 3.53 on a scale of 1 to 7, indicating that they typically experienced stress a few times per month.Most of the stress appeared to derive from what we termed demand related factors—inability to control their immediate work environment or to manage unexpected events. Workers seemed to take problems caused by a lack of resources much more in stride.
The overall burnout score didn't lag too far behind. Workers reported experiencing burnout symptoms on a regular basis (3.43 overall on a scale of 1 to 7), as well. Burnout among distribution center employees most often takes the form of emotional exhaustion—the statement "I'm emotionally drained by my work" resonated loudest among workers. Survey respondents also reported that they felt inadequate or detached on a pretty regular basis.
Feeling the burn(out)
But not every stressed worker falls victim to burnout. Some segments of the workforce continue to function normally even as their colleagues succumb to the stress. What accounts for the differences? Does job tenure, for example, affect a worker's susceptibility? How about work experience, work shift (daytime or nighttime) or job status (full time, part time or temporary)? In hopes of identifying factors that increase the risk,the research team conducted four separate analysis of variance (ANOVA) tests. What follows is a summary of the sometimes surprising results:
Redress for stress
Understanding the reasons behind workplace stress is one thing; doing something about it is another. Generally the solutions involve some combination of psychological rewards, training, raising self esteem and more sensitive management.
What can managers do? Our study didn't address this question, but based upon the current research and our professional work experience, we believe workplace stress can be greatly reduced if managers provide the following:
The survey data, of course, don't reveal how the largely male respondents felt about filling out a multipart questionnaire that focused on their feelings. Nonetheless, a total of 667 employees participated in the study, which was conducted in seven distribution centers in Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas. In exchange for their participation, employees, who completed their questionnaires during their coffee breaks or lunch periods, had a chance to enter a cash lottery drawing.
The respondent pool's demographic profile is fairly typical for the warehousing industry. About three-quarters of the respondents (74 percent) were male. Ages ranged from 18 to 65, with most (78 percent) participants falling between 25 and 44. The respondents were a racially diverse group—43 percent white, 19 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian—and fairly well educated: Four out of five participants had at least a high school diploma, and nearly one-third (29 percent) had attended at least some college.