The workplace is filled with expectations.
Employee performance is measured against expectations based on job responsibilities, past performance, and company-wide strategies.
However, employees expect this from their employer.
This constant assessment and judgment has become a part of the employer-employee relationship.
As stressful as this can be, employees know this and therefore are able to cope with reasonable amounts of employer-levied pressure.
What is far more stressful, and far more difficult to deal with, is the peer pressure applied by coworkers.
And this slips through the cracks of management's existing cache of conflict resolution activities.
UNEXPECTED WORKPLACE PRESSURE
Sales dollars actually generated are measured against forecasted numbers.
Actual project costs are compared to budgeted (or expected) project costs.
And product delivery times are gauged against an expected average to determine "on-time" delivery rates.
Everywhere employees turn they are having more pressure placed upon them to accomplish more with less.
Where employees get thrown for a curveball, though, is when additional and unexpected pressure is applied by an individual (or group of individuals) that the employee views as a peer or colleague.
A basic need for most employees is to be accepted by their coworkers...to belong and be liked.
When the unexpected pressure experienced by an employee is peer pressure, this basic need is threatened and the threat of losing one's status as "liked" and "accepted" can have severe detrimental effects on employee health.
Consider the following example that could be taken from almost any workplace.
HOW PEER PRESSURE ERODES EMPLOYEE HEALTH
Many workplaces engage in the collection of money for various charities as part of "community involvement" or "social consciousness" initiatives.
This can range from "Dress Down for the United Way", where employees can wear jeans to work on a designated day if the contribute a couple of dollars to the company's United Way campaign, to higher dollar requests for donations to support specific causes.
However, what is, in its intent, meant to do good, can also cause unintentional harm as the result of peer pressure.
Organizers rarely take into consideration that those asked to contribute may not have the economic means to contribute or that their beliefs do not support this type of cause.
In many cases people like to do their own thing when it comes to something as personal as supporting a charity.
This leads to employees feeling peer pressure to participate and thus face a very difficult decision:
If choose what they feel is right for them, they may be ostracized by their peers and lose their social acceptance in the workplace.
If they choose to go along with the group, they retain their status as an accepted member of the group but must face the personal consequences of knowing they committed money they didn't have or participated in something they didn't believe in (and even possibly against).
EMOTIONAL CONFLICT...PHYSICAL PAIN
It is this internal battle that ultimately causes the damage to the employee's health.
This emotional conflict turns physiological as the employee experiences headaches and nausea.
This can transition into more severe symptoms such as migraines, vomiting, and unexplained body pain.
Emotionally and mentally, employee health erodes as they experience such symptoms as anger towards those colleagues applying the pressure, depression, loss of ability to focus on tasks, and intense anxiety.
Some of these symptoms may seem a little ridiculous when we are discussing an office collection for the United Way, but keep in mind that the source of these symptoms is not the event itself but rather the fear of the employee at losing their acceptance in the office.
Regardless of the symptoms, what managers need be concerned over is the impact on the affected employee's work performance.
As an employee feels real or perceived peer pressure to participate (against their will) their ability to do their job declines.
Productivity falls, absenteeism increases, and - in more extreme cases - so does the number of incidents of stress-related sick leave and employee turnover.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THIS
First of all, we can't ignore the accountability and ownership an employee must take for not speaking up...but if they aren't sure what to say, they could try something like:
“I know from time to time that we take up a collection for this cause or that, but I have to say that I am not comfortable with how this is managed. I believe that those of us who would like to or already do something personal are hit doubly and sometimes that can be costly. Can we change the policy slightly, by putting an envelope in a central place and those who choose to participate either individually or as a group can and those who choose to support our community in another manner can do as they wish without peer pressure.”
By suggesting this, employees regain the option to do as they wish.
Even if the scenario does not involve a collection for a charity but some other catalyst for peer pressure, the answer is conceptually the same.
The key is for those feeling pressured to point out to those applying pressure that it should be each individual's right to participate or not and that no one should create an environment that would create undue stress.
MANAGERS, THIS IS FOR YOU
If an employee approaches you regarding this concern, remember that this took a lot of courage so don’t take this as being someone who is not a "team player" or overly sensitive to the situation or cause.
As already stated, people may have any number of reasons that they choose not to participate in an office organized event.
Regardless of how participation was encouraged in the past, maybe now is the time to look at something more individualistic.
It is better to allow your staff to choose their own way of participating in the culture of the workplace and even those who choose to do nothing should not feel pressured to step up.
PEER PRESSURE IS MORE OFTEN DETRIMENTAL
While all peer pressure in the workplace isn't bad - when it attacks the core of one's sense of self it must be put in check.
It can turn a good cause into a bad experience that can erode employee health and workplace culture.
It is important that management step in to prevent undue pressure and that HR know how to better coachaffected employees.
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