Do you frequently feel stressed at work? If you do, you’re probably not alone. Chances are that others on your team feel stressed too. OK, so you feel stressed. Big deal right? Who isn’t stressed these days? We all have a great deal that is expected of us and most of us feel like we have very little control over whether or not we are able to perform well. Unfortunately when our day-to-day work environment or corporate culture make us start internalizing these attitudes, we start to experience what Martin Seligman terms “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is a perception of inescapability and the acceptance that things just aren’t going to get any better. Once we fall into this state, it’s a vicious circle that keeps feeding our stress and leads to depression and the belief that we are worthless. Ultimately, this robs us of our creativity and our ability to solve problems.
When I think about stressful environments I’ve worked in, it seems that a lack of control over situations leads to the most stress. Lots of professional psychologists and many business professionals have tried to pinpoint what causes stress in the workplace, and it seems that they have reached the same conclusion: stress in the workplace is most often caused by a lack of control (whether real or perceived). When this lack of control exists and stress runs rampant, productivity and creativity take a tremendous hit. Plus, there are all of the physical effects of workplace stress that end up costing employers millions every year. In his book Brain Rules, John Medina identifies the following as the key “business” costs of stress in the workplace:
- Stress attacks the immune system, increasing employees’ chances of getting sick
- Stress elevates blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and autoimmune diseases
- Both #1 and #2 increase the costs of health-care and pensions
- Stress is behind more than half of the 550 million working days lost each year due to absenteeism
- Stressed employees tend to avoid coming to work at the slightest excuse, and often show up late
Based on the list above, statistical studies show that stress results in corporate losses totaling between $200 billion and $300 billion every year! That being the case, it would seem that most executives and managers would pay very close attention to the stress levels of their employees. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. In many cases, organizations ratchet up the stress level, whether it is intentionally or unintentionally, and ultimately at a cost their bottom-line. But, if you know me well, you know that I’m less of a bottom-line person and more concerned with people, creativity, and innovation. And this is the real reason I find stress in the workplace to be destructive.
On the personal level, workplace stress leads to stress at home, which in turn leads to more stress at work which leads to more home stress, etc. etc. etc. This leads to chronic stress levels, which create depression and a feeling of hopelessness or helplessness. And quite frankly, I hate to see anyone experiencing depression. So, Rule #1, eliminate stress in the workplace if for nothing else than to make the lives of the people you work with better, happier, and more enjoyable. If that’s not reason enough, I don’t know what is.
When it comes to working, stress is a tremendous inhibitor of creativity and innovation. Stress specifically does damage to two important things: declarative memories and executive function. Declarative memories are memories, which can be consciously recalled such as facts and events. Executive function is a very specific kind of thinking that involves problem solving. The result of the diminished capabilities of declarative memory and executive function lead to what Medina says is an “erosion of innovation and creativity, just as biochemically real as if we were talking about joints and muscles.” Now here’s where Medina’s expanded list of stress related issues gets really interesting. Aside from the “business costs” associated with stress, here are Medina’s cognitive impacts of stress:
- Stressed people don’t do math very well
- Stressed people don’t process language very efficiently
- Stressed people have poorer memories, both short- and long-term
- Stressed people don’t generalize or adapt old pieces of information to new scenarios as well as non-stressed people
- Stressed people can’t concentrate
- Chronic stress hurts our ability to learn
Now, take that list and think about it for a moment. It’s telling us that stress degrades our ability to communicate and thus collaborate. We can’t remember things very well, and we can’t use our memories to apply what we know to creatively solving problems. And most importantly, we have trouble learning. In the most creative and innovative organizations, constant learning and collaboration are two major keys to success. Stress in the workplace essentially takes those keys away from us.
So, now that we know what stress can do to us in the workplace, what can we do reduce stress? The answers are simpler than you might think. First, we need to go back to the root cause of most workplace stress: control (or the lack thereof). Getting control back into the hands of your employees is the key to reducing most workplace stress situations. Now, what exactly does that mean? It can mean a wide variety of things depending on where individuals are feeling most helpless. So, it’s your job as managers and executives to actively work at becoming a stress detector. Work closely with your employees and listen carefully. Watch for hints that are indicating a lack of control or feelings of helplessness. Next, after you identify a stressor, be a strong servant leader and change the situation. Whatever it takes, change the situation. It’s your job to make sure that people have what they need to do their work, to feel empowered, and to assume some control. Make it happen today.
Secondly, we can look at our organizational policies and practices to see where we could reduce stress. Here are four things that you can consider offering that can quickly reduce workplace stress:
- Stress management classes. Typically these are relatively inexpensive compared to the benefits. One study showed that after a $6,000 16-hour stress management class, the organization realized $150,000 in savings in workers’ compensation costs.
- Allow flexible schedules. Some people are owls and do their best thinking at night. Some are larks and do their best work and thinking in the morning. Let people create their own flexible work schedules to accommodate their best thinking and reduce the stress of having to perform when their mental capacities are at their lowest.
- Onsite childcare. One of the biggest stressors in life is having to make a decision between family and career (and this disproportionately affects women in the workplace). Offering onsite daycare makes this choice easier. And in general, the cost of onsite daycare is greatly offset by the gains in productivity, creativity and innovation (not to mention you’d quickly gain a better gender balance in your workplace, which is always a positive thing).
- Provide healthy food. Eating well has been proven to reduce stress. Providing good healthy food for your employees goes a long way toward improving your organization’s ability to be creative, innovative, and of course, productive. Consider providing free healthy lunches or subsidized lunches. And if you can’t afford that, empty the vending machines of sugar-loaded sweets and offer healthier alternatives. Or, provide some educational material about healthy eating to reduce stress.
- Provide opportunities to exercise. Exercise is one of the simplest ways to decrease stress. If you can afford it, provide daily exercise classes, yoga, or meditation. If that’s too cost prohibitive, consider subsidizing gym membership fees or providing exercise equipment (especially cardiovascular equipment) onsite. Or, simply encourage taking walks together during the workday. Physical activity is probably the least expensive, most effective way to reduce stress.
These are just a few ideas. I’d love to add to this list. What do you do as a manager, employee or organization to reduce stress in your workplace?