How Organizations Can Help Employees Better Navigate Work-Related Stress
In an Oracle study conducted last year, 78 in 100 workers said the pandemic has impacted their mental health negatively. 85 in 100 said that workplace stress is adversely affecting their personal relationships and physical health. More than three-fourths of the respondents believed that their company should be doing more to protect the mental health of their workforce.
What better time than National Stress Awareness Day to discuss how workplace stress impacts people and what organizations can do to help employees navigate it better?
A little trivia about National Stress Awareness Day. It was founded by Carole Spiers, chairperson of the International Stress Management Association (UK). It is celebrated on the first Wednesday of November each year. There’s a reason behind selecting Wednesday in particular—it is usually the most exhausting, stressful workday. Spiers therefore figured that this day is perfect to remind individuals and companies that stress management is fundamental to optimum performance.
How does stress affect people?
The relationship between stress and performance is well-documented in the “Inverted U model” shown below.
As this graph illustrates, stress is not always a bad thing—in fact, there is such a thing as “eustress”, where a certain amount of stress actually contributes positively to a worker’s performance. The optimal amount of stress keeps a person in the “area of best performance”. However, once the stress crosses a certain threshold, it becomes “distress”, which not only reduces productivity but also negatively affects mental and physical health.
“This is the kind of stress to watch out for. It can affect people in many ways,” explains Gurguram-based counseling psychologist Bhavya Kulshreshtha, who disseminates her knowledge as a mental health professional through her Instagram page, @adeclarationofsentiment.
She shares that physical effects of stress may include sleep disturbances, appetite and weight changes, and high blood pressure, and can even lead to cardiovascular disease in the long run.
Psychological and emotional effects include memory problems, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, and more.
In the workplace, stressed-out workers can experience a decrease in performance, lowered job satisfaction, an increase in avoidable errors, an increase in workplace conflict, and burnout.
Already known for being some of the most stressed in the world, the Indian workforce’s woes have only worsened during the pandemic. “A pandemic is not just a concern for physical health but for psychological health too,” explains Kulshreshtha. “The pandemic changed our ideas of what work and workplaces look like.” In many organizations, boundaries between work and personal life have blurred further with remote working, compounding stress and burnout.
What can organizations do to create a healthy work culture?
There are several best practices that can help minimize workplace stress and help foster a positive environment for workers. Some of these may sound simple, but they can make a massive difference.
1. Avoid over-scheduling employees
When assigning tasks for the day, organizations should respect that employees have a finite amount of time in a workday and have the right to log off on time. This goes a long way towards keeping employees healthy, enhancing productivity, and creating loyal employees.
2. Limit the number of calls per day
It can be tempting to squeeze as many work calls into the day as possible, especially when the team isn’t meeting in person. However, this can be draining (especially for workers who are introverts) and inefficient. Before reaching for the call button, ask yourself if the task at hand can be accomplished via email or a Slack chat instead. You might often find that it can be!
3. Allow employees flexibility
Allowing a person flexibility in terms of work hours and style ensures that each person can work in the way that best suits them. This enhances their productivity while keeping their stress levels within reasonable limits. It’s a win-win!
4. Ensure that employees can get breaks through the day
A major hazard of remote working is that many organizations end up not respecting workers’ need for breaks throughout the day just because they’re at home, which leads to the assumption that they’re already relaxed. This isn’t true! Whether you’re at home or at the office, work is work. People need breaks to keep them going and to prevent stress from building up.
5. Don’t expect people to work past their designated time just because they’re working from home
As an employer or manager, some may believe that employees can work longer hours since they no longer need to commute. However, it’s important to remember that people have limits to how much they can work in a day before stress levels shoot up. They also have personal responsibilities to attend to at home. It’s equally important to respect employees’ time whether they’re working from home or in the office.
6. Listen to what employees have to say
“Ask them what would be truly helpful in helping them sustain the pace of productivity that you are expecting. Take their inputs seriously instead of imposing your idea of what should feel relaxing,” suggests Kulshreshtha.
Effective ways to engage employees include using employee engagement software like Achievers Listen or Igloo Software and using pulse surveys to collect real-time feedback. Once you collect employee feedback, work on actually integrating it into the culture of your organization instead of making it an exercise just for show.
7. Prioritize community care and connect
Kulshreshtha stresses that self-care alone is not enough—community care and connection are important too. She suggests flattening hierarchies and training people in leadership positions to connect with their teammates in nurturing and compassionate ways. She also reminds organizations that it’s crucial to create a working environment where employees feel supported and can support one another.
8. Model healthy work-life boundaries
What managers do sets the tone for the rest of their team. “Don’t take calls after work hours and don’t expect your employees to do that either,” says Kulshreshtha. This helps create healthy boundaries between work and personal time, which helps support employees’ mental health and minimize stress levels.
9. Encourage employees to take time off when needed
Kulshreshtha reminds leaders to encourage rest as an essential aspect of human existence, not for the sake of productivity. This not only minimizes stress, but also helps employees feel seen, supported, and nurtured. People who are mentally present are much more likely to stick around and give your organization their best.
What resources can organizations offer to support their employees’ mental health?
1. Offer paid mental health leave in addition to sick leaves
Doing this makes the message clear: we take your mental health just as seriously as your physical health. It also destigmatizes taking care of one’s mental health, which is crucial to keeping stress levels in check. “It should be [equally] normal to call in sick due to the flu or due to a bad mental health day,” states Kulshreshtha.
2. Provide counseling services to employees
Kulshreshtha recommends hiring an in-house counselor or having referrals collected and ready, should anyone need them. She also suggests tying up with mental health organizations that work with corporates. Having these resources on hand to offer to employees makes it much likelier that they will reach out when they feel the need for support.
3. Offer financial support and time to enable employees to take advantage of these services
“Offer a therapy allowance, the way you would offer medical coverage or insurance,” suggests Kulshreshtha. “[Additionally, organizations should] allow employees to take one hour out during the week for therapy, even if they need to go during work hours.” This ensures that employees can attend therapy regularly, which is necessary in order to reap its benefits.
4. Get a Calm Business subscription or suggest that your employees use Insight Timer
The world-renowned mental health app Calm now offers “Calm Business,” a plan through which organizations can allow employees to access guided meditations and sleep support that is proven to aid mental health. They offer plans for small businesses (5-100 employees) as well as larger workplaces (100+ employees).
Insight Timer, with a library of 100,000+ free guided meditations and a 4.8-star Play Store rating, can be an incredibly useful mental health resource. It can help calm anxiety and improve one’s quality of sleep.
5. Keep an eye out for signs of burnout
Kulshreshtha says that signs of burnout include difficulty concentrating, and hard-working employees making more mistakes, and starting to miss deadlines. It can also reflect in their attitude towards work; stressed-out employees are more likely to be critical or cynical towards work. Irritability with coworkers, emotional outbursts, low motivation, reluctance to take on new assignments, and taking an increased number of sick days are all signs to look out for.
“Employers can be on the lookout for these and should do regular check-ins with employees and inquire about these areas of their life,” explains Kulshreshtha. “It is also important to note that not every employee experiencing burnout will show visible signs of it. Some people find ways to cope or try to ‘push through’ which makes it hard to spot any signs at all.” Breaking it down further, she adds, “That doesn’t mean the person is not experiencing physical/emotional burnout, it just means they are good at coping. It is still a problem that needs to be addressed.”
2021 is widely being hailed as the year of the “Great Resignation.” This is not an exaggeration—a record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August 2021 alone. This has been brought about by people getting a chance to reassess their lives and whether they’re happy with the way they’re being treated at work.
Simply put, people are no longer settling for poor work conditions. In the wake of this cultural shift, it is more important than ever before for organizations to step up and create a more conducive work environment that takes stress levels into account. This is the only way to attract and retain talent sustainably.