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What causes workplace stress and how do you manage it effectively?

Stress, much like with that weird mouldy patch on the ceiling tiles, is one of the fastest-growing issues in the workplace today. The World Health Organisation has declared stress "˜the health epidemic of the 21st Century'. An increasing body of evidence suggests workplace stress accounts for significant losses in revenue and productivity due to its negative effect on employee engagement. For example, Texas-based non-profit, the American Institute of Stress found that job stress and burnout are estimated to cost over $300 billion a year for industries in the US due to lack of engagement and other factors.

According to a 2018 Gallup study, 44% of employees report sometimes feeling burned out. While that might not sound startling (don't we all feel burned out sometimes?), a further 23% on top of that report feeling burned out very often or always. It's not just a case of feeling a bit fed up, either. Aside from reduced productivity, the knock-on effects of stress, which contribute to that $300 billion price tag, include accidents, absenteeism, staff turnover, as well as medical and legal costs. Gallup even found that burned out employees are 23% more likely to end up in A&E.

With the 'always-on' work culture of the 21st century, it's no surprise to see employee stress become one of the biggest challenges for many businesses.

How does stress work?

Stress is defined as the effect of a situation upon an individual, where the individual lacks the "˜resources' to cope effectively. As such, the stressfulness of the situation can differ from person to person. The "˜fight or flight' response is your brain's way of dealing with stress-inducing stimuli, like noticing a poisonous snake coiling itself around your ankle. Unfortunately, because we foolish humans evolved a higher level of intelligence, we have ended up with the capacity to think (and by extension, worry) about the future. The end result is that our fight or flight response can be triggered by stressful situations that aren't directly threatening, or maybe haven't even happened yet.

General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS, is a three-stage model of physical stress response developed by Hans Selye, and published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology in 1946.

  • Stage 1: Alarm. This is the moment you first notice that snake. Your heart leaps, sweat breaks out, and maybe you have a sense of time slowing down for a second as your adrenal gland secretes cortisol, followed by an adrenaline surge. This is your fight or flight moment. But sometimes running, screaming, and punching aren't enough to get you away from your stressor. Particularly if said stressor is a mountain of complex paperwork due by the end of the day. This takes us neatly onto"¦
  • Stage 2: Resistance. The body mitigates some of the effects of stress and starts to repair itself. Your adrenal gland reduces the amount of cortisol it secretes, while your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. But the body remains on high alert, trying to adapt to the stressful situation. When you're done with the paperwork but can't seem to switch off afterwards, this stage is to blame. Signs of the resistance stage include irritability and poor concentration. But maybe you didn't get away, and the snake is still climbing your leg as we speak (or that stack of paperwork is still there, despite ignoring it). If that's the case, welcome to"¦
  • Stage 3: Exhaustion. You've been dealing with this snake for the past three hours. Or more likely, your stressful work environment is really taking its toll. Either way, you've been exposed to stress-inducing stimuli for far longer than is healthy, and as a result, you're completely burned out. The snake has won. Signs of the exhaustion stage include fatigue, depression, anxiety, decreased tolerance to further stress, and most dangerous of all, a compromised immune system.
General Adaption Syndrome (GAS) is a useful model in helping understand how our bodies react to workplace stress.

Selye's original experiment was performed on rats, which when dissected post-testing, were found to have swollen adrenal glands and perforated ulcers. He went on to recognise related symptoms to stress such as joint pain and intestinal issues in an array of unrelated patients he studied in medical school, which formed the basis for his theory. Something to bear in mind next time you're feeling run down after a forty-hour week.

Executive stress

If you're an employee burned out by bad management and poor office optimisation, you might scoff at the idea of executive positions being particularly stressful, but bear with us here.

A 1958 study found that if two monkeys were restrained and electrocuted at regular intervals, with one monkey (the executive) being able to press a button to prevent the shock, it would result in the executive monkey declining in health and eventually perishing due to stress-related illnesses.

While monkeys getting shocked aren't quite analogous to the rigours of running a high-intensity business with numerous employees, it does make an interesting point about the burden of responsibility. A 2018 study of over 800 executives found that more than half reported a high stress level, with the main issues being sleep, anxiety, diet and energy levels. The majority of these cited work as their main stressor, followed by family, health, then work-life balance.

Employee stress

It's not just executives who have it tough, though. Staff engagement suffers heavily as a result of employees burning out. Employee stress is attributed to a number of factors, such as a poor work environment or lack of control in how said employee carries out their job.

Employee stress and stress-related illnesses cost US businesses in the region of $300 billion each year according to a 2018 Gallup study.

Sarah-Jane Cullinane, assistant professor of HR and organisational behaviour at Trinity Business School, discussed the challenges facing low paid workers in an interview early last year: "˜The strongest in predicting stress by far are emotional demands which include dealing with angry clients or customers or having to hide your emotions at work. This is why workers in the health sector and public administration came out as having the most stressful jobs.'

She also drew attention to the element of personal control: "˜While managers and professionals in higher paid roles often have greater time pressure or emotional demands, they also often have more control over how they do their job which is an essential resource in reducing stress.'

Reducing stress for us all

Unfortunately, there's no magic bullet for combating workplace stress. It's a complex issue affecting millions of people across the UK. Every day, we read about some new perk a company is offering its employees, from casual Fridays and gym memberships to on-site dry-cleaning services and product discounts. And while these can be great for recruitment and employee retention, evidence suggests they do little to improve a stressful work/life balance. An article in the Times found that over half of Silicon Valley employees they surveyed were more interested in personal development than flashy perks.  A 2019 survey found that 80% of people said they would be more committed to their employer if they had flexible working options, while the majority also said they had tried to negotiate such an arrangement.

Coming up with workplace coping strategies for stress prevention needs to become a key area for employee wellbeing.

The objective of lowering workplace stress has even resulted in some businesses and firms testing out four-day work weeks to a surprising amount of success, which we recently discussed here on the blog. But many are still reluctant to try this, and it is arguably not suitable for everyone. But it highlights the related issue of the stigmatisation of taking time off that exists in certain high-powered, fast-paced professions such as being a doctor or lawyer, where the care and safety of patients is paramount, and clients depend on access that might be required at any time. Tackling this stigma is one of the most vital things employers can do to cut down stress in the workplace.

Co-founder of Bliss Lawyers, Debbie Epstein Henry, has been pushing the idea of job-shares, something already practiced in the medical field so that doctors can take time off without risking the lives of their patients. Two professionals are simultaneously brought up to speed on the needs of a client, and left to coordinate proper care between them. Henry argues that this could definitely be applied in the legal sector too, especially given that large firms will often assign multiple mid-level associates to big cases anyway. "˜If it works for matters of life and death, as with doctors and nurses, why wouldn't it work for attorneys?'

Finally, two of the biggest workplace stressors, particularly for employees in lower-paid roles, are the perceived lack of control they have over how they do their jobs, and not feeling valued by their employer. These are things that can benefit greatly from a streamlined, more accessible review process, as being able to set mutually agreed-upon goals and regularly exchange feedback can give employees an increased sense of personal control, and make them feel more valued within their team.

Meanwhile, executives benefit from being able to give concise and effective feedback, reducing their own workplace stress by improving employee engagement and retention with company objectives. A streamlined review process also allows the executive to delegate more effectively, meaning a satisfying work/life balance is more achievable for workplace leaders as well. If you want to see how Weekly10's regular feedback and performance management functions could help your organisation with workplace stress, why not book a free demo today?

See how frequently sharing thoughts and experiences in Weekly10 can reduce workplace stress for your staff...