Managing Stress in Advising: What Administrators Can Do
Authored by: Jeffrey L. McClellan
Academic advisors experience stress even though they have one of the greatest jobs in the world. Actually, this should come as no surprise because any examination of workplace issues that cause stress shows that many are prevalent in advising. Among these issues are procedural redundancy, challenging relationships with supervisors, poor management practices, interpersonal relationships, uncertain or conflicting job expectations, significant cognitive and emotional demands, limited freedom, lack of opportunities for growth, insufficient recognition and reward, increasing workload, keeping up with technology, organizational politics, and limited resources and funding (Gillespie, Walsh, Winefield, Dua, & Stough, 2001 ; Nubling, Stobel, Hasselhorn, Michaelis, & Hofman, 2006 ; Ongori & Agolla, 2008 ; Sauter et al.).
Since many workplace stress issues are relevant to the advising context, stress management is important for advisors and advising administrators alike. Unfortunately, while resources exist that discuss what advisors can do to manage personal stress (Huebner, 2011; Logan & Turman, 2003), little has been written about the role of advising administrators in helping advisors manage workplace stress. Below are four key things advising administrators can do to help advisors manage stress in their workplace: understand stress, understand how stress impacts performance, recognize the role attitude plays in stress management, and learn how administrators can assist advisors in managing stress.
Stress, or in the language of some scholars, strain, is the physiological response that we experience as a result of demands placed on the body (Khoshaba & Maddi, 2005; Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005; Maddi & Kobasa, 1984). These demands are known as stressors and can be of two types: distress and eustress (Selye, 1974). Distress is referred to as negative stress in that it places demands on the body that are perceived as negative and exceed the response capacity of the individual. Therefore, these demands lead to strain, burnout, and diminished performance in the workplace (Ongori & Agolla, 2008). In contrast, eustress refers to demands placed upon an individual that are viewed as positive and or contribute to increased motivation to act. It is worth noting, however, that even positive stressors can contribute to strain and burnout as the number of stressors and the resulting arousal increase.
Regardless of the type of stressors experienced, stress produces a physiological response in the body known as arousal (Khoshaba & Maddi, 2005). The purpose of arousal is to provide the body with the chemical energy necessary to respond to demands. Unfortunately, the body only functions optimally at moderate levels of arousal (Jensen, 1998; Rock, 2009). Too little arousal causes us to feel unmotivated and lackadaisical. However, if there is too much arousal, we may feel overwhelmed. Either way, our performance will likely diminish because too much arousal diminishes our ability to focus, problem solve, and respond effectively (Khoshaba & Maddi, 2005) which leads to excessive strain and burnout, while low arousal diminishes performance by limiting motivation, attention, and interest in the work to be done.
Additionally, the experience of distress triggers a cycle of escalation based upon the amount of stress experienced, the existence of a negative emotional climate, and the experience of burnout. As we begin to experience distress, any additional stressors combine with already existing stressors to increase the negative emotional and physical state. This is compounded by the fact that once we experience distress and high arousal, it colors and shades our perception of everything else (Rock, 2009; Seligman, 2011). This negative emotional state causes us to see other things in a negative way.
When we experience stress and emotional contagion it can increase our stress levels (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002). Furthermore, when we develop the tendency to 'vent' their stress to one another, this can further increase our individual and group stress levels (Goleman, 1995). Finally, as negative emotional states increase and our bodies wear down, we likely experience burnout (Bussing & Glaser, 2000). This may result in both mental and physical challenges, such as illness, that further diminishes our performance. Increasingly poor performance largely contributes to increased distress. Consequently, we can become caught in a negative cycle of despair and strain that impacts our work and that of those around us.
The Role of Attitude in Stress Management
While the existence of strain, distress, and high arousal is very much a result of the stressors we experience, the amount of stress and whether or not it is positive or negative cannot be measured solely by the size or duration of the stressor. Instead, distress is a direct result of our perception of the stressor and the attitude we demonstrate towards it. If we perceive a stressor in a negative, threatening way, we can become anxious and the amount of strain/distress experienced increases dramatically. In contrast, when we manage the perception of the stressor and keep it in perspective, we experience less strain and distress. Thus the true source of stress or strain is not necessarily the demand, but rather the attitude with which we respond to the demand. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in the research related to hardiness, wherein researchers have found that individuals who possess hardy attitudes are able to maintain their ability to perform even in high demand environments (Bartone, 2003 ; Kobasa, Maddi, & Courington, 1981 ; Maddi, 2002 ; Maddi & Kobasa, 1984 ; Westman, 1990).
Assisting Advisors to Manage and Overcome Stress
Based on an understanding of stress, its impact on performance, and knowledge of the role that perception and attitude have on stress, administrators can do a number of things to better manage stress in the workplace. These include hiring carefully, communicating effectively, making work meaningful, providing stress management training, supporting effective coping practices, and providing positive social support.
When hiring, advising administrators should look for and evaluate candidates based on their emotional intelligence and ability to handle stress. Individuals who do not manage stress well during the hiring process (when candidates are often on their best behavior) are not likely to manage it well in the workplace. Administrators should be careful about hiring people who look great on paper or even in person, but do not manage emotion and relationships well. The contributions of those who handle stress poorly seldom outweigh their contributions.
One of the major factors that contribute to stress in the workplace is poor communication (Sauter et al.). Providing people too little information to support them in their work or too much information so that they experience information overload can create high levels of stress. This is particularly pertinent in advising where advisors deal with excessive amounts of information on a daily basis. Since the information advisors deal with is constantly in flux, one of the main responsibilities of advising administrators is to monitor and facilitate the flow of that information. Administrators should keep in constant contact with advisors so they know what information advisors need to perform their jobs well. Administrators should also seek feedback regularly regarding their work as administrators and the needs of advisors.
A critical factor that leads to high motivation, work enjoyment, and performance is the extent to which employees view their work as meaningful (Britt, Adler, & Bartone, 2001; Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). This requires that administrators understand what motivates advisors and help advisors connect what they do on the job to what they value. It also means eliminating redundancy as much as possible to stifle meaningfulness. This can be accomplished by ensuring that advisors become involved in non-advising work that makes significant contributions to the work environment. It can also be promoted through effective strategic planning and goal setting, which provides both structure and meaning.
Advising administrators should ensure that their staff receive training in effective stress management (Ongori & Agolla, 2008). This should include initial and ongoing training experiences. Advisors should be aware of the common sources of stress/strain and develop effective coping practices and social support.
Workplaces that either provide or facilitate opportunities for employees to engage in effective coping strategies are more likely to foster less stressful climates and contribute to less stress for employees (Ongori & Agolla, 2008; Sauter et al.). Promoting activities like exercise, relaxation activities, and other healthy practices can contribute significantly to improved work climate and personal stress management through effective coping.
Administrators who provide social support through regular performance evaluation and coaching can greatly contribute to an improved work climate and personal stress management (Cameron, 2008). To do so administrators need not become counselors; instead they need only focus on providing positive forms of social support and the resources their advisors need to complete their jobs. Administrators can act as sounding boards by listening to advisors’ challenges and concerns, providing essential support when advisors encounter difficulty in their work (while still maintaining accountability and avoiding overprotecting or over supporting that leads to diminished growth), and offering encouragement in the form of empathy, acceptance, cheerleading, and congratulations (Khoshaba & Maddi, 2005). Social support can also be provided by promoting and providing opportunities for positive social interaction among employees in the workplace that emphasize positive interaction, cooperation, responsibility, and innovation (Fredrickson, 2003 ; Maddi, Khoshaba, & Pammenter, 1999 ; Sauter et al.).
While stress is inherent to the work of advisors, there is much that administrators can do to address this challenge. By understanding stress, its impact on performance, recognizing the role of attitude in stress management, and by assisting advisors to manage and overcome stress, administrators can effectively manage the work environment in ways that reduce stress and contribute to effective coping practices.
Jeffrey McClellan lives with his wife and six children in Cumberland, MD. He is an assistant professor of management at Frostburg State University. Prior to coming to Frostburg, Jeff served as an advisor training and development director, advising administrator, and a career/academic advisor at three different universities. He is an experienced consultant, teacher, trainer and speaker. Jeff earned a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University in 2008. He is passionate about studying and promoting servant-leadership development, particularly among undergraduate students through teaching, advising, writing, and administrative activities.
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