Does your office fit this picture?

You and co-workers grumble a lot about low morale. Somebody's always calling in sick. You bicker. Nobody seems to know what's going on.

You may be working under a stress overload, says management consultant Linda Runion Josef.

Among symptoms of a workplace where stresses have become excessive:

High absenteeism.

Low morale.

Low productivity.

Poor staff communication.

Staff conflicts or "turf wars."

Employes fears about making decisions or taking risks.

Obstructionism, such as uncompleted taks or slowdowns.

Employers are increasingly becoming concerned about on-the-job stress and seeking the aid of consultants like psychologist Josef. She also gets "a lot of referrals from cardiologists" seeking help for patients (many of them lawyers) in reducing tension.

Not all stress is bad, says Josef, director of the Center for Applied Pschology, a group of behavioral psychologists and technical specialists doing organizational consulting and individual counseling. With too little, "we can become bored." At a healthy level, it keeps us "enthusiastic and alert."

People have different capacities to cope, says Josef, depending in part on the state of their health and "sensitivity of their nervous system. Some thrive on high stress levels; react strongly to even minor problems."

Josef defines stress as "the body's capacity to adapt to changes." It's a biological response that mobilizes our bodies for such "vigorous physical action" as fighting or fleeing "a sabertooth tiger."

The problem is that most modern stress "is psychological." On the job, and particularly at the white-collar level, she says, "The stress response can be activated several times a day" -- and not by marauding tigers. "Blood pressure goes up, the heart beats faster, we can't think as clearly."

This can be "destructive," says Josef. A factory worker told he is being retired early because of production cutbacks "becomes so preoccupied he might stick his hand in the machine. There are thousands of such industrial accidents annually."

Or workers may "start shooting from the hip with impulsive decisions. They start worrying and complaining and become preoccupied with trivial matters."

Josef is among speakers at a day-long conference April 9 on "Managing Stress in the Work Environment" sponsored by the Graduate School of the Department of Agriculture. The department cities one survey in which 83 percent of workers claimed to suffer on-the-job stress.

Stress can afflict an office in a variety of ways: The boss is a poor manager, the employe lacks self-esteem, the job itself may have built-in pressures: fast-paced, dangerous, frequent deadlines.

Josef was called into one government office experiencing high stress because of a triple whammy: The officewas relocating, upsetting the lives of most employes; it was undergoing "a radical change in management structure"; promotions were restricted.

Since there was no way of avoiding these pressures, "what you wanted them to do was reduce all further stress," says Josef. Employes attended seminars to learn self-help techniques, including exercise, to handle stress. And they were given an "outlet to discuss their concerns."

Because bosses often are guilty of creating stress through improper managerial styles, Josef is asked to show alternate ways of dealing with their staff. Among problems -- and some solutions:

Giving only limited or too-critical feedback on performance. "It undermines confidence." The boss should "give as much positive -- and negative -- feedback as possible." At the same time, he or she should "replace criticism with constructive suggestions for change."

Creating work overloads without setting priorities. "The busy staff doesn't know what's most important."

Keeping employes "off-balance. A lot of managers feel it keeps people on their toes, but it burns people out rather than building them up."

Defining tasks poorly. "People don't know what's expected of them. People derive more satisfaction when they have clear expectations."

Showing favoritism. "It gives people a sense that they don't have a chance no matter how good they are."

Other stress causes (some of them more the employe's fault):

Role overload. "There is a tendency for ambitious people to take on more and more tasks." What happens, says Josef, is that this kind of person may "spend half a morning with such trivia as travel forms when there's a mountain of work on the desk." Recognizing limits "can actually lead to greater productivity."

Role conflict. "In a regulatory agency, a person may feel his job is to enforce the regulations, but there may be political pressures not to."

Conflicts may arise for a woman, says Josef, when she's got to meet a job deadline, but her child needs her at home. "It's a very, very difficult situation.It chews up a lot of energy." Staff members "may need a manager's help in resolving such conflicts."

Secret feelings of incompetence. "I think most people have them. We don't like to admit it even to ourselves." With such fears, you start thinking "that virtually every task could be the failure that throws you out of work."

Excessive time pressure, in which workers have "a chronic sense of being rushed or working against the clock." clock."

Discrimination by race, sex or age. Employes also can be their own worst enemy, says Josef, by failing to set priorities themselves in their workload and by failing to let the boss know about stressful practices.

At the same time, the boss should "ask the staff what kinds of things they find stressful and then reduce any where it is possible."