How stressed are your employees?
A certain level of “good” stress can actually be positive. But if stress goes on for too long, it can undermine your employees’ well-being. There's a big difference between an occasional burst of frustration and feeling constantly worried or anxious about your job—day in, day out.
In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into some ways you can make the workplace a happier, more productive place and save your employees from excessive stress.
COVID-19 has affected mental health across the board. In a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans reported feeling anxious at least a few days per week since the onset of the pandemic.
And according to an APA survey, 64% of employed adults reported work as a source of stress in 2020, with 68% reporting that their job or employment was negatively impacted by the pandemic.
But stress isn’t just bad for people—it’s bad for business, too. According to a Colonial Life study of 1,505 full-time U.S. employees, more than 20% of workers spend more than five hours each week at work thinking about their worries. That adds up to billions of dollars spent on workers who are unproductive as well as unhappy.
More seriously, the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health reports that work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and incurs $190 billion of healthcare costs yearly in the US.
Clearly, stress is a serious problem. So let’s explore some ways you can prevent it from happening in the first place.
What causes stress in the workplace? Well, you may have seen those lists of the “most stressful occupations.” But stress isn’t like a condition of employment—it doesn’t happen inevitably just because a person takes on a particular job.
Instead, stress depends on the fit between the person, the role they have to perform, and the environment they work in.
Everyone has different capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses, and different preferences for the way they want to work. A task or situation that’s straightforward for one worker could be challenging or even overwhelming for another. That’s why one person’s stress is another’s excitement or challenge.
For example, a naturally creative employee might find working with figures and spreadsheets truly daunting. Or, if someone has an introverted nature, they might not relish a workplace that puts a strong emphasis on in-person brainstorming. But others might thrive in the exact same environments.
With that in mind, let’s look at six ways you can create a low-stress culture in your workplace.
An obvious source of stress is simply having too much to do. With certain types of work, time pressure comes with the territory. But that’s not the same as someone constantly facing a pile of tasks that they simply can’t get through, or deadlines that they just can’t meet.
If someone is overloaded, they’re more likely to work long hours to compensate—but that just leaves them feeling drained. As they fall further and further behind, they start to feel hopeless and overwhelmed. Then they miss more deadlines, and feel even worse. It’s a vicious cycle of ever-worsening stress.
In this situation, it’s important to understand that simply working harder or faster is not the answer. Instead, you need to step in to reorganize workloads, bring in extra help, or clarify the boundaries of a job. For their part, employees need to be encouraged to come forward if they’re feeling stressed, and tell their managers that something needs to change.
Beyond that, everyone in the workplace needs to understand how long it takes to do a quality job, or deliver good service, so they don’t impose unrealistic deadlines on their colleagues.
If stress goes on for too long, it can lead to burnout. The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as a state of complete physical or emotional exhaustion where you feel that you’re no longer accomplishing anything, or your personal identity has been lost.
In a 2018 Gallup study, 23% of employees reported that they very often or always feel burned out, while another 44% feel that way from time to time. Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times more likely to be actively looking for a new job.
The psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees may cost tens of billions in healthcare spending every year, but the costs to employers are far higher, thanks to lower productivity and talented people leaving.
However, there’s a lot you can do to prevent burnout from happening in the first place. One of the most important is simply talking to employees so you can discover how they feel about their work, their workload, and their place in the organization. It’s also vital to keep an eye out for signs of impending burnout, such as waning enthusiasm, lack of energy, and an increasingly negative attitude to work achievements.
Learn more in our blog post Everything you need to know about burnout.
Most people would like a good balance between their life and work. But what that means can vary from person to person—just like stress itself.
People from different generations, or at different life stages, may have different priorities. Some crave stability, while others may focus on family or be most concerned about their lifestyle outside work. Work-life balance is a case of “different strokes for different folks.”
One simple way to reduce stress is just to make sure employees actually take their allotted vacation days. Introducing flextime will help workers build a schedule that works for them, and regular breaks will help them stay fresh and focused. (The human brain can focus for around 90–120 minutes at a stretch, due to the body’s ultradian rhythms.)
Other options include unlimited paid time off—though there’s still a debate about whether this actually empowers and supports all employees (some evidence suggests it can make employees feel pressured to take less vacation than they otherwise would).
Over-challenging targets can be stressful. The best targets are “out of reach, but not out of sight.” Workers know that they need to make an effort to reach the goal—but it’s not so outlandish that they can’t imagine actually doing it.
It’s also vital that employees know what they’re supposed to be doing in their work. If people aren’t sure what to aim for, or they’re pulled in different directions, their energies go into trying to work out what to do—and stress is pretty much guaranteed.
As a manager, you need to clearly set out what their team members are supposed to be doing, and how their success will be measured.
Conflict at work can be a major cause of stress—and it may be more common than you think. According to UK occupational health provider Health Assured, nearly nine out of ten (86%) workers regularly express anger and frustration at their co-workers.
Many managers find it difficult to confront conflict—but it won’t fix itself. Instead, you need to listen to your team members and discover the source of their stress, then act on it.
If certain individuals are causing stress to others—for example, through bullying—then it’s probably worth gathering evidence so you can intervene and improve the situation later on.
A positive, supportive culture is one where everyone feels empowered to perform at their best, and feels good about the work they do.
Sadly, not all workplace cultures are like this. A survey carried out by UK insurer MetLife found that 45% of HR professionals believed their organizational culture caused stress among employees.
Unclear goals, lack of communication, excessive pressure, bullying, unfair treatment, conflict, and a lack of trust are all symptoms of a negative or toxic workplace culture.
The key to overcoming these problems is management support. According to the 2018 Gallup survey cited above, employees who feel supported by their managers are 70% less likely to experience regular burnout.
Employees need to feel a sense of psychological safety. That means they have clear goals, they can make their voices heard, and the environment is challenging, yet not threatening. In other words, everyone plays their part and does their best—but it’s still OK to fail.
While it won’t cure stress on its own, creating an environment that supports mental well-being will help to reinforce the impact of more concrete steps.
Workplace stress could manifest in one of several ways. It will probably start with the work itself, as employees find themselves lacking the energy, focus, or motivation to complete their day-to-day tasks.
On the physical side, they might suffer from headaches, digestive problems, or general aches and pains. Studies show that increases in cortisol, the “stress hormone,” can affect the immune system, making people more susceptible to illness.
In terms of mental health, stress is linked to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and insomnia (trouble sleeping). Stressed employees may begin “self-medicating” by overeating, using drugs, or drinking alcohol.
Stress and sleep are closely linked. If people get stressed at work, their sleep is often one of the first things to suffer. On the other hand, lack of quality sleep can be a source of stress in itself.
Many of these symptoms could be invisible from the outside. However, there are external signals you can watch out for.
Be alert for people who normally perform well falling below their usual standards, or losing motivation. Loss of concentration or focus, which you might put down to simple tiredness, could be a sign of stress.
Stress can make people irritable and impatient. So if you notice flare-ups or disputes between normally peaceable team members, stress could be a factor there too.
As many remote workers have discovered, workplace stress doesn’t disappear just because the employee isn’t physically present in the workplace. In fact, it can even get worse.
For example, employees may suffer from a sense of disconnection, or find solitude a strain, or struggle to deal with negative feedback when there’s no-one around to chat to. They may also run into problems with maintaining boundaries between their work and home lives. For example, their colleagues may assume that they’re always available.
Managers need to be alert to problems like these, and check in with employees regularly to make sure they feel connected and in control.
There are tips for employees working from home in our post on Work-from-home resilience. If you’re a manager bringing people back into the office following the pandemic, read our post on Employee mental well-being as you return to the office.
And if you’re interested in exploring a quick and easy way to offer your workers support with their mental wellness—wherever they work—book a Calm demo today.
Stress is a real problem in the workplace, and the extra anxiety caused by the pandemic has only made it worse. However, there are many steps you can take as a manager to combat stress and safeguard employees’ well-being in the workplace.
The first and most important step in combating stress is communication. Above all, you need to understand what’s going on for your employees in terms of their workload, working relationships, and their emotional state—and that’s even more important if they’re working remotely.
Get that right, and employees can overcome stress and maintain their emotional balance and mental health at work.
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