Stress in the workplace is pervasive. From unrealistic workloads to micromanaging bosses and about a thousand other reasons you can probably think of, eight out of ten employees say¹ they’re stressed by at least one thing at work. Forty percent of people described their jobs as ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressful. When you add in the collective unrest brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, stress levels are at an all-time high.
While to many of us, associating stress with work may seem “normal,” all that emotional tension takes a toll in a big way. Stress affects nearly every aspect of our lives, from our mental and physical health to our relationships and even our sleep.
For employers, its costs can manifest in the form of negative impacts to worker productivity, absenteeism and turnover, which cost U.S. businesses an estimated $300 billion annually, according to the American Institute of Stress.
Though it’s a high-pressure time for everyone, employers can take steps to reduce stress in the workplace and, in turn, mitigate the negative impacts on the business. Here are some proactive strategies for managing stress in the workplace—but first, a quick word about stress at work.
Pressure Versus Stress
Pressure is a natural part of pretty much any commercial enterprise. Deadlines, demands on your time, dealing with difficult personalities—all of these things create pressure, yet they’re inevitabilities of the workplace. And some pressure, of course, is a good thing. It drives innovation and helps you keep pace with the competition. Ordinary work-related pressure is not what we’re talking about here.
The World Health Organization has some useful guidance² on differentiating between unavoidable work pressure and damaging stress. “When pressure becomes excessive or otherwise unmanageable,” the organization says, “it leads to stress.”
It goes on to say that the biggest source of stress occurs when the demands and pressures on workers are not matched to their knowledge and abilities, when they feel like things are out of their control, and when there’s nowhere to turn for support. In other words, when pressure turns into employees feeling like they’re drowning without a life raft in sight, that’s when the stress that’s bad for both health and business happens.
So, how can we prevent the stressors of the workplace from getting out of control? The fact that you’re reading this is a great first step. Here are a few other strategies for managing stress in the workplace for the benefit of your entire team.
Strategies For Managing Your Employees’ Stress
Do Away with Cultures That Value Stress
Americans are notorious for being workaholics. People who are stressed, we reason, must have a lot on their plate, and we translate that into a status symbol for their importance or their level of achievement. You’ve probably heard about the eye-opening study³ that revealed more than half of American workers fail to use all their allotted vacation time. Employers, however, would do well to reverse office norms that glorify stress.
Is it commonplace for your staff to stay at their desks well past closing time? Do salaried employees regularly rack up over 40 hours a week? Do people feel comfortable requesting time off? Does taking a sick day elicit eye rolls?
If you’re for answers to these questions from the top looking down, it can be hard to get an honest picture of your organization in this regard. Anonymous employee surveys and Glassdoor reviews are a good starting point for gaining accurate information about what your culture is really like. Only then can you start taking the necessary steps to improve it.
Instead, Foster a Culture of Mutual Respect
Being accepted and respected by others is an intrinsic human need. Numerous psychological studies have shown that a large proportion of stressful experiences are tied to being disrespected, like when a manager ridicules you, when a social group excludes you, or when someone you love does something you perceive as a slight. Experts⁴ call this “offense to self,” and when it happens at work, it’s a huge stress trigger.
Strive to nurture a culture where everyone, regardless of job title or seniority, is regarded with a common level of respect. Employees who feel respected in the workplace—both by earning respect for their achievements and being treated with a general level of respect for being part of the team—are more collaborative, more resilient, and more loyal to their companies. They perform better, think more creatively, and take direction more effectively. In fact, in a survey of nearly 20,000 employees, respondents ranked respect⁵ as the most important behavior they were looking for from leadership.
The funny thing is, when a culture of respect is present, people don’t notice it much. But take it away (or simply lack it to begin with) and the level of stress in the workplace quickly rachets through the roof.
When you’re building your annual budget, it’s easy for flashy marketing campaigns and upgraded infrastructure to take priority for your valuable dollars. But, don’t neglect to invest in the well-being of your employees. Remember—it’s directly tied to your bottom line.
Resources that reduce stress in the workplace can run the gamut from subsidized gym memberships (since physical heath has a strong link to mental well-being) to courses on healthy stress management techniques and even counseling. Counseling services are more accessible than ever before, with a great range of online and even text-based options you can fold into your benefits package. And if you have these things, don’t forget to publicize them so employees are aware they exist.
Communicate Clear Expectations
When a workplace is undergoing major changes, like those we’re seeing take place in thousands of companies as we speak, the biggest factor that contributes to employee stress is not knowing what to expect. According to a survey⁶ of more than 2,000 workers, the largest portion of them cited “unclear expectations from supervisors” as the most anxiety-inducing factor when undergoing a work-related transition.
Though you may not have all the answers right now, you should have an idea of what you expect from your employees during this time. You can take a big weight off their shoulders by communicating it. For example, you might be fully understanding of the fact that people may be less productive than usual as they attempt to juggle childcare and work. But your employees, who are struggling to keep pace with their “normal” level of output, don’t know this unless you explicitly tell them.
Whatever your expectations are right now, be they for productivity, work hours, shifting salaries, your team’s job security, etc., communicate them to your full team in an official capacity.
Provide Greater Flexibility and Give Employees More Control
We frequently tout flexibility as a must-have workplace benefit for employers that want to stay competitive. It’s cited over and over again among the top qualities candidates are looking for in a workplace, and if you don’t have it, it can be a make-or-break-factor for your top talent picks.
The importance of flexibility right now, however, can’t be understated. Working from home is a given, but that alone doesn’t necessarily make things any more flexible for employees who are used to coming into the office. What flexibility means for your company right now will depend on your industry, financial situation, and the logistics of the work you do, but it could come in the form of reduced hours, non-standard work hours (like working in evenings after the kids are in bed), more flexibility with deadlines and even more flexible leave-of-absence policies.
Employees also feel less stressed when they have more control. Remember the study we cited earlier about lack of control being one of the biggest workplace stress factors? You can facilitate a sense of employee ownership over their time and projects by giving them a wide berth to make decisions using their best judgement rather than seeking management approval for every little thing. Little gestures that give employees more control go a long way in this, like empowering them to flex their hours as they see fit without “getting permission,” so long as the work is getting done.
Find Flexible Staffing Solutions with 4 Corner Resources
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