While it may have started as a biological response to keep our Neanderthal ancestors from being devoured by a saber-toothed tiger, stress still plays a part in everyone’s day. Although the circumstances have evolved a bit over millions of years, the pressure to provide shelter, clothing, and food for your family remains and can create ongoing emotional strain or tension. Your job is the vehicle for providing an income to meet these needs, yet it can be the very thing that creates more stressors along the way.
Fortunately, many leaders in the modern American workplace acknowledge that stress is a serious problem that can create significant challenges to physical and emotional health for employees. The American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America study reported that 61 percent of American workers listed their job as a significant source of stress.
Leadership teams are also beginning to understand that focusing on employees’ wellness can provide multiple benefits to both employees and the bottom line. In fact, stress consistently affects not only the productivity of employees, but their ability to be in the office at all. By many estimates, 70 percent of doctor’s office visits are due to illnesses and conditions that are caused or exacerbated by stress, and 30 percent of disability claims are directly attributable as well. For decades, studies such as the Stress at Work report compiled by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, have demonstrated links between stress and some of the biggest physical health challenges facing Americans, including overeating, smoking, substance abuse, chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues and sleep problems.
The impacts of stress on mental health are perhaps even more well-documented. As a licensed clinical psychologist, I see evidence of the damage that chronic or intense stress can inflict on a person’s state of mind every day:
- Long-term stress raises the risk of depression and anxiety disorders, both steadily increasing in the United States, and which together account for the vast majority of mental health problems.
- Chronic stress actually hinders the growth of new neurons in the brain, making it much harder to learn coping skills and change negative patterns of thinking and behavior over time. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle.
- Often, this inertia is associated with increased feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, leaving some feeling trapped in an untenable situation and perceive no option for relief.
In a workplace setting, this cycle can easily lead to stagnation or even total burnout, where even if a person is physically present at work, they’re not really “there”—they may be disengaged, frustrated, or apathetic. In the most severe cases, these thoughts and feelings can lead to self-harm behavior and suicidal ideation. Every organization has a vested interest in protecting the mental health of their workers and doing what they can to focus on wellness and prioritize stress management techniques—and indeed, many such leaders are paying attention.
I commend those companies whose supervisors dedicate themselves to addressing these issues, often through interventions like wellness programming. It’s not an immediately easy thing to do, as there isn’t always a precedent of prioritizing well-being within an organization—many times it’s the opposite. And while an increase in wellness programming is a very positive development, it is not in itself enough: it is only one part of the solution. If a workplace is a chronically toxic environment, a few targeted interventions may only affect the edges of the fundamental problem, and may run the risk of addressing only the symptoms, rather than the causes, of the original issue. Sometimes, it is the overall culture of a workplace that needs a significant overhaul, and that is solved not by putting out fires, but by preventing their being started in the first place. To make such progress, it often takes a fundamental shift in the way employees are managed. It requires a motivation to have an honest conversation about the emotional well-being of workers, and a commitment to making profound changes in a workplace’s culture.
Employers have a great deal of power in setting the stage for what health and wellness can look like in an organization, beginning by encouraging positive behavior and attitudes in both big and small ways. For example, smart organizations focus on management policies that make staffers feel more autonomous, engaged, and motivated—and therefore less likely to suffer from chronic stress and its effects. Here are a few examples:
- minimize interruptions that can reduce productivity and focus
- encourage use of vacation days to recharge and rest
- set realistic goals
- provide constructive feedback that is actionable
- encourage open, honest dialogue with subordinates to build trust and engagement
- facilitate productive workplace relationships and communication
- help employees connect with a larger sense of purpose
All these techniques help improve resilience and well-being. Employers can model good self-care, work-life balance, and greater connection with the big picture of why they do what they do. Organizations that use their Employee Assistance program will find that they can provide support not only for the individual, but for the supervisor and the organization.
It was my privilege addressing these issues further during my keynote at the 9th annual Maryland Workplace Health and Wellness symposium. I enjoyed joining with those leaders who are truly ready to come together in learning and take action.