If you love your job, the old saying goes, you'll never have to work a day in your life. Unfortunately, like so many other bits of conventional wisdom, this one’s not entirely true.
No matter how satisfied your employees are with their jobs, sometimes work is going to feel like … well, work. In other words, it's going to be stressful.
When left unchecked, however, occasional stress can morph into chronic stress, which can negatively affect a person’s wellness in widespread and sometimes surprising ways.
Workplace Stress Is Common … And Harmful
The American Psychological Association says the workplace is one of the leading sources of stress in the country. A majority of Americans are taking home stress related to factors such as low salaries, excessive workloads, lack of engaging or challenging work, and conflicting demands, the APA reports.
As a culture of work addiction intensifies and modern communication tools enable a state of constant connection, work-related stress is reaching epidemic proportions in America. By some estimates, stress costs the U.S. economy as much as $300 billion a year.
Beyond the financial toll, there’s a serious toll on employee health.
The Health Effects of Workplace Stress
All too often, stress is treated as an inevitable part of life—one that isn’t treated with as much seriousness as it deserves. We may joke to our friends about being stressed out all the time, but it’s no laughing matter: over time, small incidents of stress can compound into chronic stress, which can lead to burnout: a genuine psychological syndrome characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. When employees feel burned out, their work suffers, and they may seek relief by looking for work elsewhere.
In addition to the emotional exhaustion and reduced functioning caused by constant stress, there are serious physical ramifications as well. Stress is, after all, an evolutionary response to danger. When we become stressed, our muscles tense up, our hearts beat faster, and our airways expand.
This stress response may be useful for evading predators, but a perpetual physical state of fight-or-flight can tax our bodies, increasing the likelihood of autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal issues. High stress can also contribute to conditions such as depression, obesity, and insomnia.
Making things worse are the unhealthy ways many people deal with stress: alcohol, drugs, smoking, and overeating. Plus, as stress tends to make people more irritable and short-tempered, it can wreak havoc on our interpersonal relationships and family dynamics.
How to Help Your Employees with Stress Management
Perhaps the best way to reduce stress at the workplace is to take a long hard look at the factors that are causing stress—pressure to always be connected, unreasonable expectations, lack of opportunities for advancement—and working to address them.
Sometimes, all employees need is to feel like their concerns are being heard. Supervisors may not fully comprehend the pressure they put on their people until someone points it out.
However, don’t assume that no news is good news. In today’s high-pressure work environments, few employees will feel comfortable telling their supervisor that they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out by their job, for fear of jeopardizing their job security. Instead, wellness coordinators and HR leadership should make a point of keenly observing workplace culture, liaising with management to advocate for the emotional and physical well-being of employees.
In addition to using your voice and power to help reduce the sources of employee stress, your corporate wellness program can help fight burnout and mitigate the health impact of workplace stress by:
- Providing critical release valves for pent-up pressure, preventing occasional stress from becoming chronic.
- Offering strategies and resources for managing stress.
Here are a few ways to include stress management in your wellness program:
1. Promote Exercise
Regular exercise has so many health benefits, some doctors refer to it as a “wonder drug.” Exercise is as good for the mind as it is for the body. Experts say exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates endorphins, “feel good” chemicals that ward off depression and anxiety.
In addition to its neurochemical effects, exercise improves self-confidence and can provide a feeling of accomplishment when it seems everything else is going wrong in life. Athletes often report achieving a mind-clearing meditative state during their workouts. Employees don’t need to run a four-minute mile to benefit from exercise. A regular brisk walk will do.
Any form of exercise is better than none, but outdoor exercise can be especially effective at reducing stress, especially during those endless dark winter months. Here are some tips for getting your employees outside and moving.
2. Host Webinars and Provide Resources on Relaxation Techniques
It’s easy enough to tell someone to “just relax.” It’s much harder to actually do it. Clearing your mind of stress is a skill that can be learned, however.
One technique is called progressive muscle relaxation. It involves systematically tensing and relaxing muscle groups while breathing in and out.
The best thing about progressive muscle relaxation is that it is so easy to learn. You can distribute step-by-step written instructions to your employees or provide links to instructional videos.
Your employees may not know how to start with meditation and other relaxation techniques. You can help them by bringing in instructors or offering access to webinars. Make sure the classes are aimed at all levels, so no one feels intimidated or excluded.
3. Help Employees Find Downtime
As workers jump from one intense task to the next without a moment to recharge, their stress levels creep toward critical mass. Even a few minutes to re-center before diving back into the fray can make a world of difference.
To encourage employees to catch their breaths every so often, consider integrating an hourly “stand-up” challenge into your employee wellness program. You might also designate certain areas around the workplace as “rest zones.” Outfit these areas with calming music and relaxing décor.
4. Offer Coaching
It can be hard—if not impossible—to develop healthy habits on our own. When things get stressful, we tend to slide back into our routines, even if they’re not very good for us.
A life coach can help your employees set goals for stress-reducing habits like exercise and meditation and stick to them. WellRight offers your employees and their family members free unlimited coaching. After all, life is always less stressful when you know someone is rooting for you.
Stress may be an unavoidable part of most people’s lives, but the more tools employees have to manage their stress (and the more their employers help them avoid stress in the first place), the easier it will be to take those high-pressure moments in stride—coming out on the other side with improved resilience and a healthy body and mind.