July 21, 2023
Stress is an inevitable part of everyday life, and our bodies are hard-wired to respond to it. However, it’s clear stress takes a regular, negative toll on organisations across the country. Last year, 17 million days were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety, which accounted for 51 percent of all work-related ill health cases and 55 percent of all working days lost due to ill health. Poor mental health costs employers between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee, per year. Some of the main causes of stress in the workplace include mounting workload pressures, increased responsibilities, and a perceived lack of support from senior management.
It’s important to know the difference between helpful and unhelpful stress and what this means for employers looking to improve workforce wellbeing. When we view the demands placed upon us as close to/exceeding the resources we have to cope, a stress response occurs. The situation is seen as threatening. The body then releases adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us to cope. This is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response.
However, stress, or more particularly, our psychological and physical response to it, is not necessarily a bad thing. If there is a short-lived threat – stress is normal and has its benefits. “Good stress” – Eustress – is the result of our human fight-or-flight response preparing us to deal with the situation by increasing our resources.
These experiences in small doses can help us reach short-term goals at work. Although the response is usually temporary, it can help when we need to complete a specific task or prevent us from engaging in behaviours like procrastination. This is where we delay a task perhaps due to the energy it may take to complete or to prevent experiencing any negative emotion the task may produce.
However, a way in which we can harness this positive stress response is by working for short periods of time. Our brains often respond better to tasks when we know a break is coming. For example, we may take a task on our to-do list and set a timer for 25 minutes and start the task. When the 25 minutes is up, take a short break, move your body to change your physiological state then either continue for another 25 minutes or start a new task. This can also prevent us from feeling overwhelmed and prevents a build-up of stress by allowing our bodies to rest.
Since not all stress is bad, another important part of the solution is to teach employees how to harness the benefits of short-term stress and build emotional resilience, while supporting them to avoid long term exposure to stressors which can lead to chronic stress or burnout.
A chronic problem
Many employees, and employers, believe the means to success is continually ‘achieving’ and moving on to the next goal as soon as possible with no period of reflection. In fact, ‘work addiction’ is often rewarded in our always-on culture, despite its long-term negative impact on wellbeing. This is where chronic stress can occur, which is when you remain in a heightened state of stress over a long period of time. The constant release of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol can cause both physical and Mental harm to the body, like anxiety, obesity, insomnia, high blood pressure and depression. Not only is physical and mental health impacted, but it also impairs performance in the workplace.
A question I’m often asked is ‘How do we know when someone has reached ‘chronic’ stress levels?’ The answer is if you notice stress affecting an employee’s ability to live a normal life and perform their daily work routine. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, signs of chronic stress, include indecisiveness, mood swings, procrastination, an increase in errors and even increased absenteeism.
According to aan APA report long-term stress weakens the responses of the immune system, because stress decreases lymphocytes, the white blood cells that help fight off infection. This means highly stressed individuals are potentially more at risk of colds and sickness, than those experiencing minimal or average stress.
You might notice those suffering from chronic stress are working more or regularly staying late to complete tasks. Ironically, people often do this because they believe it helps them avoid these feelings. This can also lead to leavism – employees using leave days to catch up with work. This is an ineffective coping mechanism. We end up ignoring our relationships, eliminating our social lives, eating, and sleeping poorly.
The best way to manage chronic symptoms of stress is to first encourage staff to speak about how they’re feeling and create an open culture. Ensure there are people in the company who are trained to properly listen and understand those suffering. A trusted, calm, and non-judgmental listener can be the first step in effective treatment and recovery.
Responsible employers offer an array of options tailored to the workforce and based on employee feedback. Offering such a suite of options shows conversations about stress and mental health are both welcomed and expected which in turn ensures early intervention and uptake among staff.
Where signs of burnout are recognised, employers should signpost employees towards the emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or cognitive behavioural therapy sessions (CBT), which give individuals direct access to a specialist who can help them explore and understand the factors which are impacting their health and wellbeing.
Wellbeing is tied to feeling valued and appreciated. Employees want to know their employer has their best interests at heart and, if needed, they’ll be met with understanding and assistance every step of the way.