More than half of U.S. workers reported an increase in stress levels in the last five years. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, “36% of employees suffer from work-related stress, which costs U.S. businesses $30 billion a year in lost workdays.” Furthermore, 56% of employees said stress and anxiety most often impact their workplace performance. You get the idea: the stakes are high, and employers cannot afford to ignore workplace stress for much longer.
Not only is stress a well-known productivity killer, it also cages up employees’ creativity and makes them more risk-averse. Stress prevents employees from bringing their best and most creative selves to work.
Unfortunately, many employers are not fully admitting their roles in creating stressful environments for their workers. The typical response is to put the responsibility on employees: it’s their lives, they have to take care of themselves, etc. However, as Marjorie Paloma puts it beautifully in a Harvard Gazette’s article: “It’s up to all of us to make healthy choices, but the choices we make are really as good as the choices we have.” For employees to make better choices, employers need to first provide them with better options.
Not owning up to the mistakes is the quickest way to lose talent. An option that makes much more business sense is to look at where the problems are and treat the root causes. Data has shown that the main culprits of work-related stress are:
- Interpersonal relationships
- Staff management
- Dealing with issues/problems that arise
It is worth noting here that even though we love yoga and meditation as much as the next guy, simply throwing yoga classes in the mix only serves as the bandage – it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The real culprit to employee stress is the company’s negative workplace culture: how employees (and their managers) deal with deadlines, interact with coworkers, are managed as well as how the company as a whole deals with problems that arise in everyday operations.
To make it worse, employees who are already stressed feel even more stuck because of the stigma surrounding mental health. “Only 40% of employees whose stress interferes with work have talked to their employer about it.” This means that the other 60% are suffering silently. To them, disclosing this information might lead to others perceiving them as weak (31%), laugh at them or not take them seriously (20%), or that their boss would interpret it as lack of interest or unwillingness to do the activity (34%). In short, unresolved stress creates even more pressure, which comes back and haunts both workers and employers in the long run.
One more alarming fact: stress happens to the most ambitious and energetic of us. For instance, younger workers are more prone to feeling stressed at work than their older counterparts. These employees are the ones full of energy, ready to make a difference, and have so much to give to “rise the ranks,” which inadvertently makes them more prone to overworking and stress. Specifically, there are a variety of things that can contribute to this group’s deteriorating mental health, including their “perceived need to prove more about their worth to their employers”, “how life experiences to this point have not readied them for the rigors and harsh realities of employment”, and “an unfulfilled desire to achieve healthy work-life balance”. When idolizing a workaholic like Elon Musk who repeatedly talked about how people pulling through 100 hour work weeks can achieve much more than others, putting in unreasonable long work hours suddenly feels like a prerequisite to getting a good life.
Luckily, you don’t have to succumb to the cultural norms; improving your team members’ experience is possible, it just takes time and effort. Achieving a complete “cultural overhaul” requires an all-hands-on-deck approach and buy-in from the top. You can't start today and expect to see a difference tomorrow, but you do need to start somewhere. Here are some few ideas you can begin implementing to improve your employee experience.
#1 Move Away From An “Always On” Culture
The expectation that employees should turn off their computers to go home, only to check their work emails and continue to work is a problematic one. Yes, having dedicated workers on the team is good, but no, creating a culture expecting employees to work 10 hours a day, five or six days a week is not a good habit to have. Communicating expectations clearly that employees should rest and relax after their long day of work allows them to relax, knowing that they are not being evaluated based on the amount of work done outside of the office.
#2 Nurture Psychological Safety
Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School gave a TEDx talk on this subject, which made it to Google’s list of 5 traits that most successful teams share. Fundamentally, psychological safety allows team members to open up and share their opinions, which also means admitting the shortcomings and asking for help when they need it. You can create a better working experience for your employees by letting them know that it is safe to express and contribute their opinions to peers and managers, and that you will listen when they come for help.
If you can foster a sense of psychological safety while still holding your employees accountable to produce high-quality results, your workplace environment would be qualified as a “high-performing zone” per Professor Edmondson’s standards.
#3 Be Flexible
Whenever you can accommodate it, give employees the option to control what, where, and when they can work without fear of penalties. For example, forcing night owls and early risers to work on the same schedule might not be optimal; nor should parents feel like they have to go to the office when they can easily finish their task remotely from home to take care of a sick child.
#4 Educate Employees On The Topic Of Stress, Remove The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health
By starting that dialogue, you can show that management cares and that stress is nothing to be ashamed of. This way, not only will employees become more open to sharing their stress with supervisors but they will also be more willing to share with their colleagues, creating a peer-to-peer support structure. Note that interpersonal relationships are a significant source of stress, building this bridge might be a good first step to improving co-workers’ relationships down the line.
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