How to surmount workplace stress

Did you know there's an American Institute of Stress (AIS)? The Texas-based, non-profit organization aims to "improve the health of the community and the world by setting the standard of excellence of stress management in education, research, clinical care and the workplace."

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The AIS highlights the workplace as the largest source of stress for American adults, adding that the problem has got worse in the last few decades. And it's clearly something employers are aware of with Willis Towers Watson's 2015/2016 Staying@Work survey showing that employee stress is the number one concern for employers in America.

Despite the high awareness of workplace stress, it can still be a taboo subject for both employers and employees. While I don't claim to be an expert on the subject - far from it - it is a subject that interests me, so I had a look around the internet to see why it's such a problem and what we, as employers, can do to help ease the situation.

Here's what I found...

Recognize when stress is a problem

I think it's important to recognize that stress isn't always a bad thing; some degree of stress at work can actually help you get the job done. We've all experienced that butterflies in stomach, adrenalin-rush just before a big meeting, presentation or event.

It can help focus the mind and prepare the body. But when workplace stress goes unchecked, it can lead to sickness absence and mental ill-health. For employers, it can also mean productivity and revenue loss, a culture of absenteeism or presenteeism (working while sick), increased staff turnover and even legal action.

Be supportive

It's likely that there will be periods of stress within any company - your approach to these periods can make a real difference. Giving in to stress can sometimes be seen as a sign of weakness or failure, that we can't do our job properly. We're programmed and expected to work long hours, to succeed, no matter what the cost. It can stop workers from revealing that they are struggling, while managers may lack the stress-management skills or experience to recognize the signs themselves - or may just be too wary of broaching the subject for fear of being mistaken.

As an employer it can be difficult to know how to deal with stressed employees. Being able to spot the signs of stress is a great starting point, but being open and supportive of your employees and, where possible, implementing changes to help alleviate their main stressors can lead to a happier more productive team.

Be aware of the true causes of workplace stress

Don't assume you know what's stressing out your employees. Willis Towers Watson's 2015/2016 Staying@Work survey is a good case in point. It found that while employers believed work/life balance was the main employee concern, employees themselves actually named inadequate staffing levels.

Low pay and unclear or conflicting job expectations were the two next biggest concerns for employees, with employers believing that technologies that expand availability during non-working hours and inadequate staffing were the next two biggest concerns.

It's clear that what employers think is causing their employees stress is often not actually what is stressing them out. This isn't helpful when it comes to trying to reduce the amount of stress your employees feel. Here are a few other possible stressors:

  • Demands: Is your employee coping with their role's responsibilities, workload and environment?
  • Relationships: Are day-to-day interactions with colleagues positive, productive and free from bullying and harassment?
  • Control: How much say does your employee have in how they do their work? It's a major factor in job satisfaction.
  • The role: The better an employee understands his or her role and responsibilities, the better they are able to do the job.
  • Support: The resources, encouragement and assistance from superiors and colleagues, is directly related to how successfully employees approach work.
  • Change: When there are major changes, the stress involved can be reduced if employees are engaged in the process or communicated with openly. Smaller changes, such as with line managers or new technology, can also have an impact.
  • Personal issues: It's not always possible to leave personal problems at the doorstep. External stressors may include a family death, relationship problems, financial strain, chronic illness or injury, or other trauma.
  • Physical environment: What's the working environment like? Desk or work station problems include high noise levels, lack of space, poor lighting, screen glare and bad ergonomics.

Consider making changes to help alleviate the main causes of stress

If you're a smaller company, you may think you don't have the resources or expertise in house to tackle stress, but here's the good news - changing things for the better can be easier and quicker than you may expect.

As well as looking at the above, there are a number of initiatives you can utilize to ease the strain on your workers. Here are some that may be worth considering (although be sure to find out what the main stressors are first to be sure that what you're implementing will actually help relieve them!)

  • Flexible working hours: Allow your employees to work from home - telecommute - or adjust working hours allowing an earlier (or later) start and finish - especially where they may have childcare or elder care issues.
  • Finishing work at a reasonable hour: Encourage all staff to go home closer to 5pm than 7pm - then lead from the top down.
  • Employee education: Offer your employees access to resources on a range of subjects. For example, effective workload management, wellbeing in the office, managing finances or tools to help them understand the effects of the ACA on their financial health.
  • Policies that support a work-life balance: Paid sick leave and family leave allow your employees to deal with emergencies and stressors in their home life without bringing them to work. You could also consider Paid Time Off (PTO) to give your employees an extra degree of flexibility.
  • Lunch-time exercise classes, yoga or a walking group: Exercise boosts confidence, mood and sleep quality, and lowers the risk of depression, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. It also burns off energy produced in response to stress.
  • Increase communication: Being open with your employees - whether that's about stress, structural changes or company performance - fosters trust and strengthens their involvement and connection to your organization.
  • Employee benefits: 52% of employees find dealing with their financial situation stressful1 . By offering health and lifestyle benefits - such as supplemental benefits that can take care of some of the out-of-pocket costs that major medical plans typically don't cover, or critical illness coverage that provides a lump-sum benefit for an employee diagnosed with a covered critical illness - you can offer them financial peace of mind. And it doesn't have to cost you the earth if you offer them as part of a voluntary benefits package.

1Price Waterhouse Cooper, "Employee Financial Wellness Survey", April 2016.