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Reducing Stress in the Workplace

A small amount of stress is good for us. It’s what gets us up in the morning and spurs us to do our best work. But when stress is unrelenting, it can lead to burnout and have a negative effect on our health. Stress levels have been rising in the U.S. for a while now—even before the pandemic added more. This week, we shed some light on stress in the workplace, why employers should pay attention, and how they can help reduce stress at work.

The shocking statistics of stress in the U.S.

Gallup’s 2018 annual update on the world’s emotional state showed Americans were more likely to be stressed and worried than citizens of other countries. Of the over 140 countries studied, the American stress level was one of the highest at 55%—20 percentage points higher than the global average of 35%!

In keeping with other emotional health issues, stress seems to disproportionately affect younger generations. Last year, our State of Employee Well-Being research found that millennial participants reported the highest levels of stress of any generation at 70%. And a 2019 Stress in America survey corroborates that younger generations are being impacted most. It found that, on a 10-point scale, Gen Z adults reported the highest average stress level at 5.8.

What is causing this stress?

Work is a major cause. When asked about their personal stressors, the Stress in America survey found that around 6 in 10 adults identify work (64%) and money (60%) as significant sources of stress. A 2020 Gallup report found that 76% of employees sometimes experience burnout on the job, and 28% say they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work.

But why is work so stressful? A few common culprits of stress in the workplace include:

  • An “always-on” work culture. Since technology allows us to be “reachable” at all hours of the day, it means that we are never completely off work.
  • Constant interruptions. Although technology intends to make our work more efficient, it often ends up creating what a recent Business Group on Health podcast guest termed “time confetti”—a fragmenting of time caused by notifications and interruptions that pull us out of the present moment and into things we could or should be doing. These constant disruptions can add stress and anxiety to our workday, as we cannot focus on the current task at hand.
  • Social norms about work. In the U.S., we suffer from a “grind culture”—a work culture in which personal achievement and worth are measured in terms of hours worked.
  • The stigma of taking time off. Many employees don’t believe they can truly take time off to recharge because of the signal it sends about their commitment to work.

But it’s not all about technology or our uniquely workaholic nature. Increasingly, organizational experts point to a managerial or corporate culture that exacerbates stress. Employees cite unrealistic deadlines, increased workloads due to downsizing, little control over their work, and a lack of support and recognition from senior leaders.

And again, we see a disproportionate impact on younger people. A 2018 Deloitte survey noted that 84% of millennials had experienced burnout at their current job versus 77% of all respondents.

Not surprisingly, stress in the workplace has a real cost.

According to Harvard Business Review, workplace stress is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than 500 billion dollars, and, each year, 550 million work days are lost due to stress on the job.1 It makes sense, as stressed-out employees are more likely to make mistakes, be less productive, and engage in unhealthy behaviors like overeating, smoking, substance abuse, and lack of exercise.

So how can employers begin reducing stress in the workplace?

Employers can do a few things at their organizations to help their populations reduce their stress levels. And, if successful, it just may benefit other areas of the business as well, such as productivity levels, retention rates, and healthier employees overall.

Employers, here’s how to reduce stress at work:

Create a culture that encourages and supports boundary-setting.

  • Employees should set and communicate regular working hours, and block their calendars for self-care or focus time. Encourage managers to lead by example by blocking time on their own calendars.
  • At the outset of new projects, hold a team meeting to set work expectations, hours of availability, and other boundary-setting details.
  • Consider sending reminders to shut down at a reasonable hour and schedule “quiet periods” when employees should refrain from sending or replying to emails.
  • Reevaluate time off and vacation policies so that employees are incentivized to take time off regularly. Possibly schedule mandatory company-wide “holidays” to encourage R&R.

Open the lines of communication between employees and managers.

A manager is the first line of defense when it comes to reducing stress, and employees should feel comfortable expressing concerns. Weekly check-ins about how employees are feeling and what’s on their plate are key.

Embed mindfulness, meditation, and resilience into the corporate culture.

Meditation and mindfulness exercises are becoming even more popular these days. Scores of successful executives and athletes use it to clarify their thinking, enhance performance, and reduce stress. If you have not made these kinds of resources available to employees, think about how you can add them into your culture and benefits packages.

Promote and leverage your well-being program.

The mind-body connection is undeniable—when we’re feeling healthy, we’re more resilient and less stressed. So, be sure to promote your well-being program’s resources for increasing resilience, boosting physical activity, and eating well.  Wellness challenges that inspire employees—and give them permission—to step away from their desks and move throughout the day are also a great idea.

Stress isn’t going anywhere soon, but we can take steps to bring it to a more manageable level. Since Americans cite work as a significant source of stress, employers need to play a role in helping to reduce it. This is especially important for younger workers, as our research shows that they expect even more support in areas like mental and emotional health from their employers. A work and leadership culture that supports holistic well-being, taking time to recharge, and setting boundaries will help.

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