Stress at work: defining the line between motivation and an abusive workplace

July 17, 2016 - by: Celeste Duke 0 COMMENTS

by Celeste Duke

In the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, Blake is a trainer sent by corporate to motivate a sales team. In addition to offering helpful gems like the acronym ABC to remind the salesmen that they should “always be closing,” he repeatedly berates them and calls them names while bragging about his own success. He tells the team about a new sales competition that week: First place gets a Cadillac, second place gets a set of steak knives, and third place gets fired.  Woman overloaded with stuff at work

We hope you have never had a boss like Blake, but it’s likely that you recognize shades of his character in past managers, coworkers, or even a current manager in your organization. You want managers to push employees to do good work and get the best results for the company, but it can be hard to know how far is too far. During his “motivational” speech, Blake asks one salesman, “You think this is abuse?” As it turns out, it just might be, and this could be a new frontier in employee claims.

You’ve got me feeling emotions

When an employee suffers a physical injury, a doctor can run tests and use predetermined standards to assign a numerical value to the impact of the injury. But employees claiming to have suffered a mental injury because of working conditions have had little luck getting remuneration. According to Lea B. Vaughn, a law professor at the University of Washington, scientific advancements in the tests that reveal stress as well as a shift in the way we look at psychology could soon offer employees grounds for emotional-distress-type claims against employers.

Vaughn notes that while the introductory study of psychology at universities used to focus on Freud, they have moved on to biochemistry and neuroscience. “Increasingly, science is giving us a different definition of pain and abuse and ways to measure it and prove it is happening,” she says. “Neuroscience provides a data set that proves chronic stress and abuse significantly harm the human organism.” Tests such as EEGs, MEGs, QEEGs, and fMRIs can provide that data set by looking at the function of the brain.

Despite the tests’ usefulness in measuring stress, Vaughn warns that they could lead to a type of false positive in employment cases. For instance, most employees won’t have a baseline test that measures the effects of stress on their bodies before they started working for you. So when they get the test done as part of a lawsuit, it could be hard to tell whether the results are proving stress that happened at work or whether the stress is from a bad marriage or carried from an abusive childhood.

Not all stress is created equal

You may be thinking to yourself, “If employees can sue us for the stress caused by an abusive workplace, can we sue them for inflicting emotional stress on our managers who have to deal with their bad excuses and missed deadlines?” Probably not. Part of the scientific definition of stress is that the person must not feel in control of the stressor. The greater the loss of control, the more severe the stress is perceived to be. So even if an employee is in a high-stress position, it’s not the same if she has control over subordinates or her work. Conversely, an employee could be in a position that isn’t considered very high-stress but could experience stress because of a controlling supervisor.

It’s important to note that not all stress is bad. Mild amounts help teach and motivate us, but the stress response in the body is designed so a person can operate at top performance for short bursts. Extended periods of stress cause a cortisol overload, which damages neurons in the brain, diminishing memory, hurting motor skills, disrupting the immune system, and damaging the nervous system.

As this area of employment law is explored, one of the biggest questions that must be answered is, “What is the good part of stress, and where does it cross the line to dysfunctional?”

Bottom line

While there may not be a standard claim for workplace stress yet, an abusive workplace can play a significant part in many other types of employment law claims like discrimination, wrongful discharge, and harassment. Often, all you need is your HR experience and a gut reaction to know when a manager’s behavior crosses the line between motivation and abuse, and you should step in to help the manager find another way to inspire employees.

Celeste Duke is a Senior Editor at Business and Legal Resources, where she manages HR Insight, Diversity Insight, and Technology for HR.

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