How to make the most of workplace stress.
Funnily enough, stress can be one of the most common experiences shared by your employees. So, why not use it to unite teams, create social cohesion AND help them manage their stress and boost their productivity all at the same time?
After all, nothing brings people together like a shared value – or a common enemy.
Why focus on stress at work?
But seriously, stress is now the biggest health and wellness issue facing Australian workplaces.
Psychological injury claims now outstrip physical injury claims. They are the most expensive workers compensation claim, and are the cause of the longest absences. Not to mention the presenteeism. At a personal level, chronic workplace stress can lead to serious mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion. Sustained stress is also linked to severe physical health problems, such as immune deficiency disorders, chronic headaches, cardiovascular disease, and a reduced ability to recover from illness.
According to the Australian Psychological Society (APS) stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015, some 35 per cent of Australians reported having a significant level of distress in their lives in 2015. More than a quarter (26%) of Australians report above normal levels of anxiety symptoms, and the same percentage had moderate to extremely severe levels of depression symptoms.
Anxiety symptoms in 2015 were the highest they have been in the five years of the survey.
Just as worrying is the health effects of how people try to deal with stress. Of those reporting severe levels of distress, 61 per cent drink alcohol, 41 per cent gamble, 40 per cent smoke and 31 per cent take recreational drugs to manage stress.
So why haven’t workplaces focused on stress?
Until recently, many workplaces have been unwilling to talk openly about stress. It’s like they don’t want to admit it exists. They’re worried it will encourage employees to make a claim. Or that it might imply by association that they as employers are the cause of the stress.
But ignoring stress doesn’t make it go away. In fact it makes it worse, because employees:
- think you don’t care
- are never given tools and support to manage it
- are never encouraged to change the work practices that contribute to stress
- end up trying to cover it up, or cope in unhealthy ways – or just leave.
Likewise, many employees don’t want to admit just how stressed they are.
While it’s considered OK to say you’re stressed by an unreasonable deadline or complicated project, few people are willing to admit they’re stressed by everyday life. Some still see it as a character flaw: “If I was more competent/ experienced/ resilient/ strong I wouldn’t be so stressed.”
Stress is the unifying factor in your workplace. Address it cleverly, and it can change the whole culture of your organisation. We suggest a two-pronged approach:
- Normalise and explain it
- Support and address it.
Normalising stress in your workplace.
The first step is to explain what stress is and why we experience it. Show that it’s a natural physiological reaction, ingrained in our DNA as a primal reaction to a perceived danger.
This type of education piece would explain factors such as cortisol and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. It would show why it’s understandable that we feel stressed in our modern lives. Options include:
- Seminars, webinars or workshops
- Content such as newsletter articles, ebooks or online health programs
- Conversation starters. Use a “thermometer” poster where employees can indicate their levels of stress that day. This is a simple, cheap and effective way to get stress out in the open. Print out a big image of a thermometer and stick it on the wall. Provide post-it notes and encourage people to place their post-it on the thermometer to show how they’re feeling. Ideally, managers/ supervisors would then address this in their general conversations and communications that day.
- As another conversation starter: If you have quick standup meetings each day or week, ask people to rate their stress 1-10 (plus perhaps a positive emotion such as excitement or satisfaction.)
Addressing stress in your workplace.
Now that stress is out in the open, you can’t just have it dangling there. You need to offer support to help employees manage it AND look at changing those work practices that are contributing to stress.
Stress management services could include:
- Mindfulness and meditation classes
- Exercise classes, or allow and encourage people to take time to exercise in the middle of their workday
- Introduce or reinforce your flexible work arrangements
- Onsite massage
- Mental health consultations.
- Mental health and wellbeing challenges
Work practices could include factors such as employee input and two-way communication, deadlines, workloads, unnecessary meetings, work breaks and trust.
Want more advice on workplace stress solutions? Contact us today!