Of all the social media awareness days, April’s National Stress Awareness Month is one of the most far-reaching.
All of us will have felt stress at some point in our lives – whether that’s from a potentially harmful situation, or indeed mounting workloads and pressing deadlines in the office.
What’s concerning psychologists and also HR teams over the last decade though, is how stress levels seem to be rising. The ‘always on’ nature of modern work, socialising and communications has seen stress levels surge to a 30-year high according to research from Penn State.
In fact, middle aged workers are almost 20% more stressed now than in the 1990’s in what has been referred to as a modern-day ‘stress epidemic’.
So, Stress Awareness Months marks a perfect opportunity for HR teams and people leaders to assess the stress levels within their own organisations and attempt to do something about it.
What causes stress at work?
Defined by the HSE as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work’, stress can come from various angles and doesn’t just relate to performance pressures or tight deadlines to get things done.
Common contributing factors can include:
- Unrealistic targets and expectations
- A lack of control and autonomy
- Working too many hours
- Lack of peer and managerial support
- Undefined job roles and expectations
- Organisational change
- Toxic workplace culture
- Bullying and discrimination
- Health, safety and financial worries
What makes stress difficult for organisations to effectively manage, is that everyone reacts differently to situations. For example, one employee may thrive with a lot on their to-do list and tight deadlines. For another employee, however, mounting workloads can simply feel like an ever-increasing burden.
The result is often that organisations only start to realise they have a stress problem when they start to see the symptoms.
How does too much stress impact an organisation?
Those workplace stress symptoms can be quite alarming once they begin to set in.
On an interpersonal level, stressed-out employees tend to be more irritable and emotional, may find it hard to concentrate and see their productivity reduce.
On a wider scale, baked-in stress leads to increased employee turnover, more sick days, lower output, worsening cultures, reduced teamwork and creativity.
The ‘big three’ of turnover, productivity and engagement are so negatively impacted by high levels of stress because stress is both corrosive and infectious within a workplace. The drive to get things done, to collaborate, drive towards a shared goal and uphold corporate values is eaten away by persistently high levels of stress. Meanwhile, the most stressed-out staff see their wellbeing suffer and burnout set-in, affecting engagement and eventually leading to them handing in their notice.
Dealing with stress should be seen as a mission-critical task for HR teams and organisations at large and no less important than mitigating other wellbeing or performance-related human factors in the workplace.
How to reduce stress in the workplace
We know some of the stress triggers at work, and also what the symptoms of unsustainable stress looks like. But what can organisations do about it?
Whilst it’s not incumbent on, or fair to expect, any organisation to completely remove all stress from the working day, there are some key areas of focus which can help to mitigate the worst and most prolonged stressful impacts.
Setting an example
The best bosses don’t work their people to the bone. Instead, they set an example as to how their reports should behave in order to deliver the best work.
The aforementioned ‘always on’ nature of modern work has caused a lot of the increase in stress and burnout that organisations have seen over the past decade – especially with the rise of working from home.
But leaders setting a visible example of how to ‘work around work’ is crucial to helping others develop healthier behaviours. For example, leaders logging off when they’re meant to (or at least turning their status to offline), not sending emails out of office hours, and resolutely taking all their holiday days sets a precedent that means other employees feel they’re able to do the same.
Remember, all we’re suggesting here is that employees feel empowered to fulfil their end of the bargain, and not the requirement to consistently over deliver in order to feel seen and appreciated.
An ROI approach to wellbeing
Organisations should care about the mental and physical wellbeing of their people because it’s the right thing to do. But when it comes to actually investing in the betterment of employees’ wellbeing, well, it’s handy to know that there’s plenty of research showing fantastic investment returns in doing so.
The leadership team at Johnson & Johnson found that strategic investments in their peoples’ social, mental and physical health paid off at a rate of $2.71 for every dollar spent in healthcare costs alone.
On a wider scale, healthier staff are more loyal, more engaged and more productive. The potential cost saving + cost benefit far outweighs most smart wellbeing investments.
The right tech
The wrong technology drives employees mad and can significantly increase stress levels too.
Just think, how enraging do you find it when trying to do a quick, simple task but your computer is frozen or the software you’re trying to use just won’t play ball?
These one-off annoyances are frustrating. But if they happen almost every day then they can begin to impact an employees’ ability to actually do their job.
Platforms already in place need to be working with HR to improve wellbeing and not against them. The worst culprits here are late-night emails and also centralised team comms platforms (like Slack or Teams) that ping with messages until the early hours.
It’s incumbent on HR to lead in this area and put the measures in place to reduce every employee’s need to be ‘always on’.
On top of getting your existing tech to work for you, there are a range of platforms available that can directly benefit longer-term staff wellbeing.
At Phase 3, we help hundreds of organisations just like yours to research, integrate and deploy the HR systems that fit their organisational goals.
Find out how we can support your HR goals for 2023 through the right technology here.
If your own stress levels are unsustainable, or your mental health is suffering right now, then there’s always someone to turn to for help, support and advice. The following organisations would be a good place to start: