The Stress Factor: What the Online Rhetoric Doesn’t Tell You about Business Growth

By: Terri Hiskey, vice president, manufacturing product marketing, Epicor Software Corporation

You don’t have to search far on LinkedIn before you come across phrases like ‘I’m a results-driven go-getter’, ‘I thrive in a fast-paced environment’, ‘I’m a best-of-breed strategic thinker’, and ‘I have a track-record for generating business growth’. The list goes on.

But beyond the online show, a lot of people–and the organisations that employ them–actually find business growth rather stressful. And that’s the case even though many organisations are constantly looking to grow their businesses by expanding into new territories, developing new product lines, or boosting their profits.

According to Gideon Neiman and Marius Pretorius in their book Managing Growth, business growth puts a strain on resources. It often requires employees to work harder and faster, and needs managers to make quicker and more accurate decisions. Business growth also involves change–whether that’s integrating new locations, new colleagues or new products into existing processes, and this too can make growth more challenging. As part of its global growth survey, Epicor has looked in more detail at the realities of business growth, in order to better understand how different organisations across the globe cope.  

By surveying over 2,000 business professionals across the world, we found something that LinkedIn’s online show of pride doesn’t give away. While one-in-three business professionals find growth rewarding, two-in-five actually find it challenging, one-in-five finds it stressful and one-in-ten even finds it painful. Perhaps these things are easier to admit on an anonymous online survey than on a public LinkedIn profile page! 

The realities of growth are therefore more complex than they may at first seem, with stresses and challenges playing a significant role in employee experiences as the businesses they work for develop. Nevertheless, with businesses generally feeling optimistic about their growth prospects (scoring an average 7.2 out of 10 for optimism), they must come to grips with these realities to make the growth process easier.

While a certain amount of stress can be stimulating, it can also be incapacitating for businesses or employees for whom it is not manageable. For example, in his work on stress in business, Jim Taylor, Ph.D. from the University of San Francisco, explains that growth can put employees under psychological pressure to perform, and that in turn can give people more energy and endurance, sharpening their thinking and focus for the intellectual demands they face. However, as soon as demands begin to exceed capabilities and resources, business growth (and the stress it brings) may become debilitating for workers and the businesses that employ them.

Stress may be a by-product of growth, but businesses want to grow. So, what can they do to help make the journey easier?

Our research shows that businesses turn to a variety of methods to help them keep on top of the stresses and challenges they face while growing, and demonstrates that different members of the workforce have different opinions on how to make business growth a better experience. Not surprisingly, two-in-five (38%) members of staff questioned in our study believe that business growth could be less stressful with better leadership. On the flip side of this, 37% of directors and managers think that the challenges of growth can be largely overcome if employees worked more efficiently.

There are differences too, between different sized organisations–with a quarter of large organisations (with over 1,000 employees) tending to feel that growth would be less stressful if their business model was more flexible, and only 16% of small organisations (with under 100 employees) feeling the same. Smaller businesses, after all, tend to find it easier to adapt, making change less difficult to manage. Larger organisations on the other hand tend to have to work harder at evolving. They have more internal processes to follow, and more stakeholders to involve in strategic decision making, which is an inevitable aspect of growth.

Across the board there is widespread recognition that implementing better technology is key to a business’s ability to cope with the stresses and challenges presented by growth. Making use of the latest technology can help businesses work more efficiently, and even help them expand into new geographies, without having to make huge investments in staff and facilities. This is especially true in the manufacturing sector, where intelligent enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions are helping organisations to bridge the top floor with the shop floor. By doing this, ERP systems allow for better data flow–for example between sales teams, machines on the production line, shipping partners and customers–as well as automating otherwise manual tasks to cut time to market.

Almost half (47%) of business professionals across the globe agree that technology is an important factor in overcoming the challenges of growth, with those that are in a position of power tending to feel even more strongly about this fact. 54% of CEOs and 52% of directors and managers believe that technology helps them overcome the stresses of growth. However, just 37% of staff who are less senior agree.

It’s possible that more senior staff have a better understanding of the business benefits of technology change, because they have a clearer idea of the business’s growth strategy and the ‘end goal’ that technology will help them to reach. Less senior employees however, tend not to be involved in the decision-making process, making it harder for them to see the value in change. They may also be over-burdened by increasing workloads and have little patience for learning how to use new technology on top of their daily grind.

Technology change can moreover threaten the organisational culture of the workplace–it can change the work environment by transforming tasks and processes, and providing greater visibility of those tasks, something which will understandably make staff nervous if they don’t feel they have a personal and professional stake in the changes being made. Organisations that do chose to embrace digital transformation on their pathway to growth must therefore do this in a manner that will allow all members of the workforce to understand the reason for the business’s investment, to overcome resistance from staff.

While it’s certainly true that some business professionals do thrive under the pressure of growth, beyond the online rhetoric, and the year-on-year increase in output or profits, there’s a deeper, more human experience of business growth too. While some find it rewarding, others find it challenging. The most successful high growth organisations are those that have flexible systems, are able to constantly adapt to new and better business models, and are able to bring their staff onboard with changes along the way. Investing in technology is a good way to meet these three growth requirements and tackle the challenges of growth head on.