Work-related stress is recognized by the World Health Organization as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”. For many years, it has plagued the business landscape worldwide. In fact, on the latest survey of Wills Towers Watson, stress ranked as the top workforce risk factor. Findings show that stress topped the surveys for two consecutive years in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Latin America. It doesn’t stop there. Over the years, many surveys also identified stress as the biggest concern of the workforce.
Why does stress continue to become an issue in business? Are companies doing enough to battle it? How can companies and workers themselves fight the negative impact of stress?
The risk on employees and businesses
Studies have shown that stress is related to different illnesses. The range of severity varies from catching a cold to terminal illnesses such as heart disease. In Salvo’s interview with stress experts, they mentioned many possible stressors in the workplace. Excessively long working hours, unrealistic management demands, poor leadership, and fear of job loss – the list goes on.
“All these symptoms naturally impair one’s ability to perform optimally, reduce creative levels, reduce health and well-being, and most definitely reduce one’s ability to come up with solutions to even the simplest day-to-day issues,” said Bridget Edwards, an emotional change catalyst and author of the book Stress Gone!.
Employees are not able to function properly and because of this, companies lose a ton of money due to increase in absenteeism and healthcare expenses alone. According to Dr. Pete Sulack, America’s leading stress expert and founder of Unhealthy Anonymous, a workforce with tremendously high levels of stress can be bad for business. “The fact is that while absenteeism is costly, people showing up stressed out costs them more. They have brain fog, are distracted, irritable and not nearly as creative as they could be if they were relaxed. They make more mistakes and are more difficult to manage and work with.”
The consequences of stressed out workers showing up at work are not the only thing they need to worry about. Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, a physician trained on neuroscience and wellness and leadership coaching, points out that stress can be “contagious”. This is caused by mirror neurons. According to an article on the Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine, “mirror neurons” discharge by observing a person perform a motor act and imitating it afterwards. This includes emotions as well. Other employees can pick up the anxiety felt by a stressed co-worker and feel the same way too. “This was great when survival in the wild increased if you could start responding to danger when you say your buddy’s stress reaction triggered, but it is not helpful with everyday packed with volumes of triggers to your stress reaction system,” Dr. Cynthia said. She also added that too much energy is expended on reaction – up to 1400 chemical reactions – and not enough on generative, creative, productive work.
The problem at hand
Work can be quite the pickle, so it’s understandable why the working population is prone to experiencing heavy stress. But are companies doing anything to counter its negative effects? Experts agree that not enough is done. According to Dr. Cynthia, a recent study in the US claims that 85% of workers experiencing workplace stress rated the efforts to reduce stress as fair to poor. This has resulted to US companies losing up to $300 billion dollars a year.
With such a big loss, why aren’t companies hurrying to fix the problem?
Truth is, the issue of stress in the workplace is complicated to deal with. What makes stress a complex health issue is that it works differently for every individual. Bridget pointed out that there are many factors to consider because the environment and how people respond to stress may vary. What can cause stress to one person may stimulate and motivate another, making it hard to pin down what exactly needs to be fixed.
A major hindrance to providing solutions is the impression that stress and exhaustion at work is a good thing – it means that you’re doing something right. “For some people, there is a warped perception that stress, or the amount of stress, is actually indicative of success and therefore a necessary ingredient of success, proudly worn like a ‘badge of honor’. In other words, success and stress go hand-in-hand – implying the more stressed, the more successful one is,” Bridget said.
Dealing with stress and business
Bridget advises employees to exercise making quality choices to reduce stress. “Exercise free will, make wise and healthy choices, and you’ll be able to control the levels of stress you participate in better. If necessary, change jobs, relocate, eradicate toxic relationships, and live within realistic financial means.”
On a greater scale, companies need to be flexible and open to changing several elements in their operations if they are to create a relaxed and productive atmosphere. “This requires a multipronged approach to address organizational effectiveness and provide programs to support a more human-friendly, brain friendly culture. Identify why your workforce feels stress – the answers are sometimes surprising. And ask the workforce what would work better – they are an amazing source,” Dr. Cynthia suggests.
Dr. Pete recommends companies to make changes in their setting by providing standing desks for workers and encourage them to spend part of their days standing instead of sitting. If budget permits, they can also make a gym available to employees, or use gym membership discounts as an incentive for workers to exercise regularly. Most of all, business leaders need to create change using a top-down approach. “Set the example from the top-down. If executives are stressed out, chugging caffeine, staying [until the wee] hours of the night, smoking too much, drinking too much, and eating the wrong foods and not exercising, then that will set the tone for the culture of the corporation.”
“Until employers realize the huge toll that stress takes on their bottom line, they won’t change anything about the current corporate culture,” he added.