Back to back meetings, understaffing, overworking and impossible deadlines. Sometimes it can feel like you are trapped on a corporate hamster wheel of stress. Whilst some people thrive in high-pressure environments, it will eventually begin to take its toll, both on mental and physical health and can lead to burnout and even depression.
The problem with stress in workplaces became so severe that in 2019 the World health organization declared it the health epidemic of the 21st century. The problem has only been exacerbated since the onset of covid-19 and the increasingly blurred line between work and home life. A study released in 2021 found that 48% of surveyed U.S. employees experienced high to extreme stress in that year, a 7% increase over the last two years.
So what exactly is stress, what and why does it happen, what are the signs, and what can we all do to help?
What is stress, and why & when does it happen?
When we experience stress, our body creates particular hormones that trigger a flight or fight response and engage our nervous system. This bodily response helps us respond quickly to risky situations and is our body's natural response to pressure.
Sometimes, stress responses can be positive. For example, it can help us push through high-pressure situations like giving a presentation or having a job interview.
However, chronic stress has detrimental impacts on both physical and mental health.
Stress can occur in many different situations that are unique to each person. Stress can often be caused by experiencing change, lack of control, uncertainty or high-risk situations.
What are the signs?
Stress can manifest itself physically, emotionally and behaviorally. Whilst everyone's experiences of stress are different; the below symptoms are some of the most common.
Emotionally you may feel anxious, sad, angry, frustrated, irritable and impatient.
Physically you may experience headaches, increased heart rate, body aches and nausea. Of course, these only add to the already existing emotional symptoms.
Behaviorally, these emotional and physical symptoms can lead you to struggle to sleep, withdraw from social settings, or turn to more unhealthy coping mechanisms.
More specifically in the workplace, stress symptoms could also include a higher sickness or absence rate, falling productivity or more conflicts between colleagues.
What can employers do?
When it comes to managing workplace stress, employers undoubtedly play the most crucial role. Whilst employers cannot account for each employee's individual circumstances; they can control the environment and experiences that said employees would encounter each day. Below is a selection of practical initiatives which employers can implement to help to keep stress under control.
Employees who lack understanding of the company's structure and vision and therefore do not fully comprehend their own purpose within the company are more likely to feel stressed. They may struggle to perceive how their hard work matters overall. Employers should consistently share the short and long term company goals with employees, for instance through monthly meetings and eye-catching graphic posters.
Equally, organizations with few opportunities to progress and low job security will also suffer from stressed employees as motivation will be low, and fear will be high. Employers should ensure that employees have a clearly defined path to progression and should endeavor to honor long-serving and loyal employees instead of making new external hires.
Poor communication between management and employees, whereby employees feel they have no say in company decisions and have no support from their superiors, also creates a high risk of employee stress. Management should try hard to establish and maintain transparent and open communication channels, perhaps through a mentorship scheme. A quick check-in every week with your manager can be the difference between an employee feeling valued and supported or underappreciated and stressed.
Employees also require regular feedback, or else they are likely to feel stressed by the uncertainty of not knowing how they are perceived to be performing. Therefore, employee annual or bi-annual reviews are crucial, with 360 reviews being particularly beneficial.
Whilst periodic reviews and feedback are important, ongoing and chronically high workloads and responsibilities, paired with too few breaks and low flexibility, are arguably even more critical to employee stress levels. Everyone needs time away from work to recover, reset, and take care of other duties. Encouraging employees to take small and regular breaks and introducing schemes such as flexitime can also help. Encouraging employees to maintain a work/life balance by spending time on hobbies, family, and friends shows that an employer is genuinely invested in their employees' well-being.
Delivering professional training to employees is also essential for employers who wish to manage employee stress levels. Without appropriate training, employees will not feel entirely qualified or able to perform their roles to the best of their ability, leading to self-doubt and stress. Employers can consider e-learning, peer-to-peer training, group lessons, trips to training centers, or other options. Employees who complete training modules should be praised and asked for regular feedback.
Poor corporate culture and the ensuing probability of poor comradery with colleagues are also common predictors of high employee stress. Likely, said employees will not look forward to, or enjoy, coming to their workplace. Check out our previous blog post where we busted common corporate culture myths for some tips and tricks on how to create, maintain or develop a thriving company culture.
Finally, dedicated mental health resources should be available to all employees. Sometimes feeling supported and knowing the resources are there, should you need them, is enough to keep a little stress at bay. Ideally, at least one individual in each team should be put through mental health first aid training to become that team's dedicated mental health warrior.
What can employees do?
The first and most simple thing employees can do to help themselves is to take advantage of any or all the initiatives offered by employers, some examples of which we have set out above. To not use the resources provided to you would be to invite more stress than necessary into your life.
However, there are also multiple other ways employees can manage their stress themselves. Whilst, many of these may sound cliché, do not disregard them. Simple actions done regularly can have a more significant impact on your well-being and stress levels than you may expect.
Meditation: Deep breathing and some calm moments can help clear a busy mind and ease a tense body.
Exercise and nutrition: Physical activity has long been proven to help mental health thanks to the endorphins it releases. Proper nutrition will help ensure you have the vitamins and energy you need to feel your best.
Social life: Maintaining a social life outside of work is crucial. Surround yourself with people who energize you and bring you happiness. It provides some context to the day's stresses and reminds you that there is more to life than work.
Social media: Limiting social media usage is also a good idea. You will likely sleep better, and you will also ingest less unnecessary content and information, leaving more room in your brain for the things that matter!
Whilst none of the above actions would, in isolation, make a noticeable difference to employee stress levels, a combination of multiple of them may be what it takes to see an improvement.
However, if a highly stressful situation does not improve, employees should discuss this with management. Any honorable employer should be open and willing to listen and learn.
What about the employers themselves?
Whilst attention is most commonly focused on managing the stress levels of employees, we cannot forget about the employers themselves!
Carrying out a managerial role can be very demanding. Although leaders are in a more experienced position than other employees, this does not make them immune to stress. Left unchecked, this could lead to bad decisions and poor company performance.
When leaders practise healthy stress management, they demonstrate that it is ok for other employees to do the same. And by doing so, an organization becomes more positive and better equipped to respond to challenging situations and manage future crises.
Employers can personally implement the same recommendations as we set out for employees above. However, they could also;
- Block out defined periods on their calendar to dedicate to reflection or personal development (no meetings allowed!)
- Celebrate the wins! Leaders can sometimes forget to acknowledge the positive progress made if they are too stressed and focused on pressing ahead.
Lastly, a coach can support you, whether you are an employer or an employee, to help you find ways to minimize your stress and maximize your time. Together, you can determine which of your stress responses are warranted, which ones are habits of behavior which may not be necessary, and how to manage them all regardless.
Although some stress in the workplace is to be expected, feeling constantly overwhelmed by stress should not be routine. Stress can and must be managed in your organization to ensure a positive and thriving culture. Implementing initiatives to manage stress in the workplace will benefit the people within the company and the performance of the company itself, so what is stopping you?! Start today and get in touch with us to find out more.
Disclaimer: While we hope the above tips and tricks can help manage workplace stress, they cannot be used as a substitute for medical advice. If you are feeling chronically stressed or are worried about someone else who is, please seek professional help.