Stress at the workplace is something that in various degrees effects everyone at work. In today’s tough job market coupled with many economic uncertainties, work related stress is even more noticeable than it has ever been.
As a result of much research in the area in recent years, in extreme cases, correlations between workplace stress, cancer, heart disease and immunity system failures have made it clear that health and safety professionals need to sit up and take notice. Identifying with the severity of the problem, has led to many organizations worldwide setting clear workplace policies and increasing their welfare efforts in recent years.
What is particularly concerning is that it seems that in the modern era, workplace stress is playing a much larger role than the occasional “deadline day” pressure. This combined with the many external influences are negatively impacting long term health and overall worker productivity.
When a stressful workplace situation presents itself, our natural instincts takes over and our bodies automatically go into the “fight or flight” mode, increasing the flow of blood through the muscles, increasing heart rates, blood pressure, respiration and metabolism. Traits that as human beings have served us very well over the course of our existence, as our early ancestors went into short bursts of fight or flight mode when hunting pray or protecting young ones from a predatory attack.
As technology, workplace requirements and general external stressors grew throughout the centuries, our natural physical reaction to stress did not evolve at the same rate and in our modern day, we find ourselves spending more time in the fight or flight state, something which our bodies are not necessarily used to. As a result, we are witnessing so many health issues caused by us spending more time in this state, health concerns in which the commonality of occurrence is way beyond anything we have seen through human history.
There are generally two sides to be considered when looking at workplace stress. One would have to always examine the individual aspect (internal) as well as the organizational aspect (external) of the problem as each can present their own list of reasons as to why our employees suffer from workplace stress. It is important that as health and safety professionals we understand both the external and internal stress-causing events, no matter how we perceive those events ourselves.
The individual aspect will need to consider conditions such as lifestyle, pre-existing conditions such as anxiety or depression. Organizational aspects may include a culture of blame or working long hours, bullying, harassment, lack of appreciation, excessively high workloads, multiple reporting lines and a significant lack of communication within the company.
Previous organizations I have worked with in the past have placed organization stressor as one of the top priorities when developing their workplace policies, taking into account the most significant reasons for stress within an establishment and developing the right procedures to prevent them. The stronger organizations go a step beyond and try to look at the personnel aspect by providing strong health and welfare programs, consultations and general awareness initiatives.
I have highlighted some of the essential areas of focus where many organizations have successfully developed programs to better minimize the impact of stress at the workplace:
1. Find out what really causes stress in your workplace
Contrary to the popular belief, it is actually not that hard to find out what the main organizational causes of stress to your employees are. As long as it is treated anonymously, there are a number of surveys out there which can provide you with a general idea of what you need to look at when dealing with the issue of stress within your workplace.
A number of organization would normally begin the process by introducing a set of “Managing Stress at Work’ awareness sessions in a bid to ensure employees understand the various terminologies and feelings associated with managing stress in the workplace.
They would then commence to introduce the anonymous surveys in a bid to understand what some of the main organizational stressors are. They can then analyse the responses and through a series of potentially later focus groups can gain an insight into the root cause of the problems.
2. Flexi-time has shown to have great benefits.
Although not always possible as a result of operational needs, research has shown that there is much benefit for organizations that allow that flexibility.
Such work arrangements may reduce stress as employees show greater workplace satisfaction and experience better work-family balance, better overall mental health and lower levels of stress. The National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW) conducted by the Families and work Institute found that employees in more flexible workplaces exhibited less negative spillover between work and family life. This was found to have significant benefits for both employers and employees.
Analysis showed that while there were no differences between males and females who had no dependents, there were major differences between parents and mothers whom exclusively used their flextime to support their mothering role like attending school events, while fathers used flextime for personal activities such as exercise.
3. Look at the working environment
Sometimes the environment in which an employee is working in can create physical stress as a result of noise, poor lighting and ventilation, poor office ergonomics, glare from display screen equipment, poor temperature control or inadequate sanitary facilities.
Organizations should strive to at least meet the basic requirements highlighted in International standards such as OSHA in the United States or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the United Kingdom in order to apply the basic workplace health and safety standards. Meeting these required workplace regulations will ensure that a healthy working environment is provided for all employees.
4. Use technology to reduce workplace stress
Employee engagement can no longer be restricted to the annual survey or performance appraisal where employees normally key in some basic responses in a hurry. Organizations must work towards knowing their people better. When it comes to managing workplace stress, ensuring you have adequate communication throughout the organization is key!
It is not an easy ask to constantly remain connected with all your employees on a personal level. This is where technology comes in handy. Messengers application and communication tools are available to allow team to remain connected at all times. Applications such as Slack or Skype are designed for such teams and to enable seamless communication and collaboration.
In a way, such applications can reduce stress as they are ensuring everyone keeps involved These are only some of the technologies that organizations can utilize to reduce work stress. It is important to make these available, accessible, and usable for all employees. Employees must be enabled to use them, by way of proper training. Most importantly, employees must be empowered to use them by designing self-service modules, so that they can truly depend on them to make work lives easier and happier.
5. And finally…the culture
Probably the final piece of the puzzle and the most important is that leadership are successful in creating a culture based on genuine care for the employees. This is not always easy to create and in most cases requires the right type of people able to guide the change.
Work environments where worker recognition is encouraged, occupational health programs promoting exercise and physical activity, a strong focus on collaboration, interaction and team building as well as training where employees are encourages to set clear goals for themselves and their team members, are ones where reduced stress levels could be observed. The idea of mindfulness or meditation in the office is something that is becoming more common in a number of multinational organizations.
As employers and welfare professionals, we should always be aiming to reduce stress for the sake of our workers health and ultimately the health of our businesses. It is important to remember that individuals handle stressful situations differently. Some will be more sensitive to it, while others will be more resistant. Some will prefer to deal with it alone, while others will need the support of a team to get through it. To ensure successful programs are maintained, any approach would need to cater to individual differences and a diversified strategy, relying on many of the above tactics established.