Why stress doesn't equal success: 5 ways to manage stress in the workplace
We’ve all heard the adage ‘stress equals success’. Even though most of us now know this is a misconception, the hold that stress, and its relationship with success, has over us is still as strong as ever. When you see a colleague putting in long hours and balancing a busy schedule, you might think they’re a high-flyer—a success story. In truth, this perception has at best normalised a lack of work/life balance, and at worst created a toxic aspiration, leaving many without the right strategies for managing stress in the workplace.
A study conducted by employee health and performance experts, Global Corporate Challenge, revealed that non-stressed employees performed at a higher than average level compared to their stressed out counterparts (87% vs. 63%). Yet, despite many mythbusting stats to prove that stress is damaging to productivity at work, many teams are still stuck in a cycle of burnout. The GCC's own Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Batman, admits that "in an increasingly complex and demanding workplace, stress at work has become the modern back pain—commonly present, little understood, full of misconceptions and often unrecognised or talked about."
What are the main causes of stress in the workplace?
There are a multitude of factors that contribute to a feeling of stress and overwhelm in the workplace. According to the Stress Management Society, UK employees lose 105 million days each year to stress-related absenteeism. Even though every individual will experience stress in a unique way, there are several key workplace stressors that have been identified to cause the most stress day-to-day:
Having a workload that is consistently too high is the number one stressor at work, accounting for up to 44% of stressful scenarios. If an employee is consistently given too many deliverables or too tight deadlines, their trust in the management or even the organisation as a whole can begin to erode. Employees with unrealistic, intense diaries are likely to burn out, disengage and/or quit if they feel that they are being taken advantage of or not appreciated by their team.
Lack of resources
With ever-tightening budgets, it’s unsurprising that some companies have had to work differently while adapting to any lost headcount. Employees who are expected to continue delivering (or increase their output) with diminished resources report higher levels of stress in their job compared to employees with ample resources at their disposal. It’s not just a lack of employees, however; budget cuts across learning and development, software and tools all contribute to this widely-reported stressor.
When times get tough, teams look to their managers to help guide them through. From micromanagement and overbearing leadership styles to absent or unsupportive managers, ineffectiveness at leadership level is a large contributor to stress at work. Whether through lack of training or a problem with organisational structure, a poor employee-manager relationship can impact productivity and morale in a big way, with one US study revealing 75% of workers find their managers the most stressful part of their job.
What are the effects of stress in the workplace?
Stress affects us all differently but common symptoms range from difficulty concentrating to reduced sleep quality and generalised anxiety. While it’s normal to experience stress at work in small, manageable amounts, stress experienced over a long time can develop into more serious conditions such as panic disorder and depression. Not only does a high level of workplace stress increase the likelihood of absence, stress is thought to be a leading reason as to why employees might look for another role elsewhere—particularly if the stress is caused by their direct managers. In fact, a study conducted by Gallup found that half of all employees have at one point left a job in order to escape a difficult or toxic manager.
It’s not just mental health that’s at risk in a high-stress workplace, a survey of over 3,000 Swedish employees determined that those with a stressful relationship with their manager were 60% more likely to suffer from a stroke or heart attack. Numerous diseases have also been linked to stress, with one report showing the elevated correlation between detrimental work environments and diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
With the risk of longer term health problems so high, getting stress at work under control should be at the top of every business owner’s agenda, both for the wellbeing of individuals but also to create both a productive and profitable workplace.
How can you handle stress in the workplace?
Even the most ‘stress-free’ workplaces now should start thinking about how to reduce stress in the workplace. By future-proofing now—simply implementing a few strategies for managing stress in the workplace—you can help employees build resilience against stressful environments and develop the skills to navigate the common stressors listed above. Company growth, increased headcount and changes in the market can all quickly create feelings of uncertainty in a workplace, and if even just one person is struggling, it can have a profound effect on the greater team and mission. Here are the best 5 ways to manage stress in the workplace:
1. Make 1:1s a two-way conversation
Work with management to create a standardised 1:1 structure, ensuring employees have the opportunity to raise problems, make suggestions and share any frustrations they have in their day-to-day. The goal of these sessions should be to create a realistic plan for delivering company goals without compromising on employee wellbeing. Whether that means increasing the resources available to teams, renegotiating deliverables or extending deadlines. Help them to help you remove obstacles by asking not only what they need to succeed, but to thrive in their role.
2. Create self-care routines
Set up self-care practices that make employees feel supported. A workshop on stress in the workplace might not be helpful in the long run but a commitment to a yoga, meditation or breathwork program at work could help employees manage day-to-day stressors in a sustainable way. Remember—offering self-care practices as part of your corporate wellness package is not a substitute for addressing systemic problems in the organisation. Instead, see them as a positive supplement to a healthy work environment.
3. Set up a mentorship program
Seek out more experienced colleagues who, if willing, can offer to mentor more junior employees. A coffee once a quarter to check in on goals, discuss ambitions or simply have a chat can create trust and cohesiveness in an organisation, helping mentors feel like they’re contributing to the bigger picture and giving mentees another outlet outside of their direct line managers.
4. Establish leadership values
Ensure leaders know what’s expected of them when it comes to managing their teams. Everyone will have their own unique leadership style but setting some guiding principles will allow for consistency across the business. Empathy is a great value to include—open up the conversation to the wider business and ask what empathy at work means to them. You might be surprised at the varied responses you get back.
5. Reaffirm work boundaries
Do you have set working hours? Are certain teams always first in or last out (or online if you operate in a remote/hybrid environment)? It’s easy for certain boundaries to be pushed if they’re not regularly reaffirmed. Remind employees of any flexible working policies in place and ensure managers are baking this balance into their overarching team deliverables.
Investing in the health and wellbeing of employees isn’t a nice to have but a crucial strategy in maintaining a profitable business in challenging times. With a few careful and considered changes, stress can be more effectively managed in workplaces, creating happier, more productive and resilient employees.