In the workplace, chronic stress affects everything from quality of work to productivity and engagement. According to a study by Farleigh Dickenson University, sixty percent of lost workdays each year can be attributed to stress. In fact, according to the Global Benefits Attitude Survey, highly stressed employees take almost twice as many sick days a year as their counterparts who report low stress levels. This absenteeism impacts productivity, and ironically, can create more stress as the stressed employee falls further behind in workload.

Beyond absenteeism, the same survey found that productivity also impacts “presenteeism,” a phrase used to describe when we show up to work unwell and unproductive. Here, rates were 50% higher in highly stressed employees than in their low stressed counterparts.  Whether an employee is absent or merely present, stress directly impacts productivity in the workplace.

Stress also affects the quality of an employee’s work. Simply put, when we are present but unproductive, we are not at our best, and therefore our output won’t be optimal. But stress can also contribute to mistakes, especially as employees become frazzled and have trouble concentrating. Additionally, as stress gives way to frustration and anger, the quality of working relationships can be impacted, ultimately making it harder for teams to achieve high performance. 

But perhaps of greater concern for employers is that stress also impacts employee engagement and ultimately retention. The same Global Benefits Attitude study reports over half of employees claiming to be experiencing stress indicated they were disengaged; whereas half of their low stressed counterparts claimed to be highly engaged. The Wall Street Journal reported that one third of people surveyed considered quitting their jobs because of stress and a full 14 percent actually did. Recruiting and training new employees costs companies money, and so the impact of stress on engagement and ultimately retention can’t be ignored.  

Another aspect where chronic stress affects the bottom line is with respect to healthcare costs.   It’s estimated that at least three-quarters or 75% of all doctors’ visits are due to stress. This costs employers ultimately in their health insurance expenses.

Stress can lead to an increase in inflammation due to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol.   Chronic stress can therefore lead to chronic inflammation.  Inflammation leads to any number of health issues including:  heart disease and blood pressure, gastro-intestinal and autoimmune issues, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.   Stress also impacts our immune systems, increasing the likelihood of catching a cold, the flu and other viruses.   Stress also impacts mental health as it can lead to depression and anxiety. It’s easy to see why at least 75% of all doctors’ visits have stress as the underlying cause. 

Can you see the danger now in simply accepting stress as a way of life, especially in the workplace?   The good news is we are not without solutions.    

Solutions for Addressing Stress in the Workplace 

Companies are increasingly creating roles designed to look after the wellbeing of their employees.   In fact in 2018, Morgan Lewis, LLP, a global law firm with offices in Philadelphia, hired its first Director of Employee Wellbeing. While not every company has the ability to hire its own Director of Wellbeing, there are things any company can do to address stress in the workplace:

  • Mindfulness Programs.  Mindfulness programs are designed to help employees learn how to practice mindfulness and gives them opportunities to develop this skill during the workday. Mindfulness has been proven to increase focus – something that is often lacking with distracting technology.  That focus also enables productivity.  Aetna reported that employees gained 62 more minutes of productivity on average each week after implementing their mindfulness program.   A byproduct of mindfulness programs is stress reduction.Mindfulness programs at work don’t have to cost anything, and can actually be self-started and self-organized by employees who may already be regular practitioners of mindfulness.  There are also individuals such as myself who work with companies to implement these programs.
  • Resilience Training.  With resilience training, employees learn to examine how they respond to stress, how they can recover from stress, and ultimately how to transform stress to their advantage to enhance performance.  These programs improve productivity as well as overall health and support professional and leadership development.
  • Controlling Meetings & Emails.  Meetings and emails – both necessary evils – are some of the biggest contributors to a lack of productivity. Here’s how some companies have addressed this issue:
    • Establish “Meeting-Free Wednesdays” – one day each week dedicated to executing work without the disruption of meetings. Everyone knows they have a guaranteed a day to focus on their work.
    • Control Meeting Times – Ban Monday morning and Friday afternoon meetings, allowing employees to complete tasks and emails before the weekend and to start each new week off right.    
    • Limit Email Times. Limit emails to before 7:00 PM so that employees did not feel compelled to check emails all hours of the night and feel the need to respond immediately.  

Of course, all these solutions only work if the whole company buys-in. All too often these solutions end as soon as one person breaks protocol, and then the old culture kicks back in.  Companies can make this work, but it does take adherence and strong culture of support.

  • Mental Health First Aid. Employers can also register for Mental Health First Aid, an education program that teaches the skills needed to identify, understand, and respond to signs of behavioral challenges or crises. Anyone who has been on a team with a tight deadline or a lot of stress knows how much time team members can spend with each other. It may be that team members observe more of these signs than family members, especially when the individual is working long hours, and thus it could be a co-worker that can intervene.
  • Encourage Self Care. Employees may be more inclined to reduce their own stress if they feel encouraged to make it a priority. Share these tips for managing stress at work with employees.

We are far from having to accept that stress in the workplace simply is what it is.  There are steps that companies can take to address employee stress. It is not only important for the wellbeing of employees, but also impacts the bottom line for the business through productivity gains, better employee engagement and retention, and ultimately cost savings.

Once you implement some of these stress management techniques for your staff, show you appreciate them in other ways, like by feeding them, hosting offsite company events, and encouraging a props system for employees to recognize one another.

About the Author

Betsy Leahy is a Coach, Speaker and Facilitator who specializes on the intersection of work, wellness, and travel.