Stress can quickly become distress when there is too much of it, too often or when it lasts too long. Here's what CLOs can do to help improve employee well-being in the workplace.
by Danny Weill
October 15, 2019
Employee well-being plays an important role in business profitability and growth, with higher levels of mental and physical health linked to increased productivity and, ultimately, better company performance. Yet, it’s a factor that’s all too often overlooked, and people are feeling the impacts of stress more than ever. With study after study proving that stress is manifesting in alarming ways, from increased rates of high blood pressure and heart attacks to depression and anxiety, employers and HR leaders should be concerned, since often the cause of this stress is work.
According to The American Institute of Stress, work is unequivocally the single biggest source of stress for adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 40 percent of employees consider their job very or extremely stressful. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a 2018 Korn Ferry survey said their stress levels at work were higher than they were five years prior, with 76 percent saying work stress has had a negative impact on their personal relationships, 66 percent saying they’ve lost sleep due to work stress and 16 percent who said they were forced to quit a job due to stress.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
A certain amount of stress is good for us. It provides energy to do the things we need to do and to perform well. It motivates, stimulates and makes us more focused on the task at hand. Our bodies need a certain amount of adrenaline and cortisol in our system to function at our best and reach our highest potential. When experiencing “good” stress we feel energized, excited and in the zone. For example, investment bankers, emergency medical service providers, lawyers and other people who work in intense professions typically understand that stress is inherent in their jobs — and many even thrive on it.
However, stress can quickly become distress when there is too much of it, too often or when it lasts too long. So how can CLOs and HR leaders help transform their workplace wellness to better support employees’ personal lives in a way that drives their professional engagement?
Identify the Signs
What you need to look out for in the workplace is abnormal, destructive levels of stress among your team members. Recognizing the symptoms of stress in employees and understanding their impact is critical to effectively dealing with the contributing issues and improving employee well-being. Physician and expert on stress management David Posen says stress can show up in various ways for different people, with symptoms appearing across four categories: physical, mental, emotional and behavioral.
Physical symptoms of stress are more easily identified and attributed to stress than other symptoms. Internally, employees can experience headaches, back pain, and tightness in joints and muscles. Symptoms that are externally visible can include clenched hands, frequent trips to the bathroom and, most commonly, fatigue.
Employees who are dealing with stress can cause further stress on themselves by working with reduced mental function. They can have trouble remembering things or be unable to make decisions. Their minds can go completely blank or constantly be racing, making it harder for them to focus on tasks.
Emotional reactions to stress can be harder to spot in the workplace. Many employees may be able to keep their emotions under wraps at work, only to have it affect their life at home. Feeling tense, nervous, anxious, irritable and impatient are some common reactions to stress. Additionally, according to Posen, more than half of all patients who present with stress also present symptoms of depression.
Employees may rely on unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to deal with the feelings of stress, from compulsive eating, smoking and drinking, to swearing, crying and yelling. Other behavioral symptoms may manifest as knee jiggling, fidgeting and pacing back and forth as the body tries to exert the pent up “fight or flight” energy caused by stress hormones.
Conditions of the job or specific role can also help you determine whether an employee’s health and well-being has been or will be affected by stress. Analyzing roles within the company can help to determine whether there is potential for undue stress on employees, allowing you to take steps to avoid it before it causes an issue.
Types of work conditions that have been found to cause stress in employees can vary, but there are some common offenders. Incorrectly designed work roles are one, when employees are not clear on job requirements and expectations or are handling too many responsibilities. This can also include roles where an employee’s skills are being underutilized, they are unable to take breaks as needed or they are dealing with a heavy workload.
Poor environmental conditions can also contribute to stress. Constant distractions, lack of ergonomic work stations, lack of physical interaction by working in an isolated area, or dangerous conditions that create health and safety concerns are a few examples.
Additionally, situations that create job insecurity and lack of room for advancement or promotion can cause stress over time for an employee, leading them to be unsure of their position or value within the company, and can contribute to overall low morale.
It’s important to note that not only can stress have an immediate effect on an employee’s well-being, but it can also be detrimental to their health in the long term. The Encyclopaedia of Occupational Safety and Health reports that job stress can lead to an increase in cardiovascular disease and risk of heart attack, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and burnout, workplace injury, and even suicide. In turn, these can also contribute to factors that affect the company as a whole, such as increased absenteeism, lateness and employee’s intentions for quitting.
How You Can Help Your Staff
All this points to the fact that millions of Americans are on the verge of burning out — so much so that the World Health Organization recently listed burnout as an occupational phenomenon caused by chronic workplace stress — and employers need to step in. You can help your staff in a number of ways.
Ensure easy access to resources. While employees may not always go to their manager when they have a problem, managers can ensure that an employee has the resources they need in order to begin addressing any issues they may have. These resources can help educate the employee on how to identify the symptoms of stress and the root cause, allowing them to begin to develop a solution that they can recommend implementing with their manager.
Notice changes. According to expert Ash Bender, psychiatrist and deputy clinical director of the Mood and Anxiety Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, being able to observe changes in an employee’s behavior, function and performance in the workplace is one of the most important skills you can cultivate. Periodically reviewing an employee’s performance allows managers to observe pattern changes, address the employee’s issues and recommend individualized solutions.
Develop a culture of support. If managers aren’t addressing their stress in healthy ways, neither will their staff. Managers must be educated and trained to minimize workplace stress not only for themselves, but to provide appropriate solutions for struggling employees. Digital tools can be used to create a culture of caring and provide much-needed education to help employees and managers get on the right track to reduce sources of stress.
Organizational change. It’s important to identify the stressful aspects of work (such as excessive workload or conflicting expectations) and work with others to design strategies that reduce or eliminate the identified stressors. The advantage of this approach is that it deals directly with the root causes of stress at work in order to prevent issues before they arise.
Prioritize mental health. It comes as no surprise that when organizations champion proper mental wellness, employees are healthier, take fewer sick days and are more productive. This can be achieved by sharing information and access to services on topics like mindfulness, stress management and self-care to support psychological well-being.
Relax your rules around paid time off. It can be stressful to know you only get 10 days of paid leave per year. Rather than “waste” those precious days, many employees choose to come to work even when they’re unwell. This presenteeism is detrimental to both individuals and the organization. Giving employees leeway to take mental health or sick days when they need to ensures your employees stay healthy and can come to work feeling their best.
Design an uplifting physical work environment. Did you know the spaces around you can affect your mental well-being? Things like natural lighting, calming artwork and comfortable furniture go a long way toward putting your employees’ minds at ease.
Consider alternative therapies. Perks like onsite massages and puppy therapy are growing in popularity. Not only are they effective ways of breaking up the pace of the workday, but they can also re-energize employees and put them in a positive mood.
Offer access to financial and legal advice. The cost of living is rising faster than wages are, and employees are feeling it. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 64 percent of respondents were concerned they may not be able to afford retirement and 41 percent were worried about covering their basic monthly bills. To make matters worse, a survey conducted by ARAG, a legal protection services firm, determined three-quarters of Americans had at least one legal matter to attend to in 2016. Giving your staff access to resources on personal finance and legal advice can help reduce their stress.
Stress is an inevitable element in the workplace and your employees’ lives. In order to implement strategies and tactics to keep employees motivated, it’s important to be able to identify the symptoms that prevent them from being productive and engaged. Then, using the tactics described here will help keep stress in check so you can improve and maintain your employees’ well-being — and keep them more focused and productive.