Leadership Strategies to Mitigate the High Cost of Workplace Stress
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A slow air leak in a tire may not cause harm — at least not initially. Left unrepaired, however, it can cause a flat tire, which can lead to a blowout, which can pose a risk to you — and to the other drivers around you — especially if you’re traveling at high speeds.
The word “stress” is so common in today’s workplace vocabulary that its impact has become diluted. But, like a slowly deflating tire, its effects on an individual — and ultimately, on your organization — multiply over time.
Researchers have found that since America’s “stress epidemic” graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1983, stress has become even more rampant — and perhaps more intense as well.
The 2015 American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America report says that 24 percent of adults reported experiencing “extreme” stress (an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale), up from 18 percent in 2014 and the highest percentage since 2010.
Chronic stress — even at moderate levels — makes people sick. Among the primary culprits: cortisol, which regulates the body’s immune system and the production of glucose.
A 2012 study led by Dr. Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University directly links chronic stress to illness. Cohen and his team found that because stress compromises the body’s ability to regulate inflammation, it “can promote the development and progression of disease.”
(For more information on the relationship between stress and well-being, see Is Stress Making Your Team Sick?, below.)
The implications of workplace stress are too significant to ignore — and could pose a serious threat to your company’s bottom line.
Is Stress Making Your Team Sick?
The correlation between stress and illness — both physical and emotional — has been firmly established.
- Studies dating back to the 1990s have found that between 75 and 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems.
- Up to 80 percent of patients with autoimmune disease reported emotional stress prior to the onset of disease in an earlier study conducted at Belgrade University.
- According to WebMD, a sampling of the top health problems directly related to stress include heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, headaches and even premature death.
- Stress also contributes to unhealthy behaviors — e.g., overeating, lack of sleep and addiction — further exacerbating the problem.
Stress: The Intangible Threat
Unfortunately, work triggers stress for many people. And companies suffer as a result.
According to an American Psychological Association report entitled Stress in the Workplace, 36 percent of employees report feeling stressed at work.
What differentiates stress from other maladies is one of its most unique defining qualities: Stress is a perception. It’s not concrete. It thrives only in the mind of the beholder.
“Even in the most prudently run companies, stressors will never disappear,” Jody Michael, CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates, explains. “What matters — and what can change — is people’s response to those triggers.”
Employees’ Stress Becomes the Company’s Burden
While stress itself isn’t tangible, its impact is. Some have attached a price tag as high as $300 billion per year to its cost to U.S. companies.
When stress compromises an employee’s well-being, the company suffers. Workplace stress and its related issues lead to:
- Lower productivity
- Higher levels of absenteeism
- More health insurance and disability claims
- Decreased employee engagement
- Increased turnover
One study estimates that absenteeism costs U.S. companies $3,600 per hourly employee and $2,650 per salaried employee per year. The cost of employee turnover varies depending on salary and experience, but with a median cost per hire of $4,000 per employee, these costs can add up to a significant drain on your bottom line.
What Can Leaders Do to Reduce Workplace Stress?
Perhaps the most important thing you, as a leader, can do to mitigate the effects of stress is to recognize it as a legitimate threat to the viability of your team, department and company.
The following strategies can help you reduce workplace stress among your team members:
Teach stress management — Because stress is a physiological reaction to one’s thoughts, the good news is that it is 100 percent within the control of the person experiencing it. You can help your employees learn to change their perspective by providing them with training that teaches them to think — and respond — more effectively.
Our MindMastery workshop leads people through a proprietary step-by-step process to shed the mindsets that sabotage their success. Breaking out of “auto-pilot” mode creates an awareness of the link between a person’s thoughts, moods, perceptions, behaviors and results. When people learn to change non-productive thoughts, they actually rewire their brains to achieve better — and sustained — results over time.
Stress is a perception. It’s not concrete. It thrives only in the mind of the beholder.
Walk the walk — As a leader, you’re a role model for your employees and team members. Do you know how to effectively manage stress at work? Jody often helps executive coaching clients develop greater resilience, one of the most critical attributes of an effective leader. Resilient leaders translate challenges — and even failures — into opportunities. As she emphasizes to new and seasoned leaders alike, “When you have control over your own mood states, you catapult your leadership capabilities to new levels.”
If you’re not managing your own stress levels, you could be unwittingly spreading it to employees — and sabotaging your team’s success. A Yale University study proved that emotional contagion not only impacts individual-level attitudes, but exerts influence over group processes as well.
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is one way for both you and your team members to keep stress at bay. “When workers are balanced and happy, they are more productive, take fewer sick days, and are more likely to stay in their jobs,” according to Mental Health America.
(If you’re looking for additional ways to manage stress, see 10 Ways to Manage Stress, sidebar.)
10 Ways to Manage Stress
Listen — Do you have an accurate pulse on what’s really going on in your team, department and company? Leaders who sit in an ivory tower, removed from employees’ day-to-day responsibilities often miss red flags — and opportunities to provide ample support.
Leaders can help employees manage stress levels by listening. Ignoring tough or uncomfortable issues doesn’t make them disappear. When you master the skills — and display a willingness — to engage in crucial conversations, you gain the ability to address the underlying issues that could be at the root of team members’ stress and anxiety.
Institute mandatory vacations — Heavy workloads and fear of returning to unmanageable backlogs appear to be getting in the way of employees taking vacation time to “recharge.” Over 55 percent of American workers left unused vacation days in 2015, according to a study conducted by Project Time Off. Another survey, conducted by Glassdoor in 2014, found similar results: On average, American workers used only half of their eligible vacation days for the year.
The traditional formula for vacation time based on an employee’s tenure is becoming a thing of the past in many corporate cultures. Many companies now offer unlimited vacation time and some, like Evernote and Anthology, are recognizing the value in “forced” time off.
Ban “stress” — Literally. Your organization likely has policies that forbid the use of offensive language. The word “stress” isn’t just offensive; it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it becomes part of the stories people tell themselves — and believe. Stress management begins with an awareness of the triggers that create the perception of being “stressed.” Blaming, complaining and bullying exert negative energy, and have no place in healthy workplace environments. Training employees to use positive language — in their self-talk and interactions with others — is a powerful way to help them reframe their perspective.