No one is surprised by the statistics anymore: the American Institute of Stress (AIS) reports that “65% of workers said that workplace stress had caused difficulties and more than 10% described these as having major effects.” In addition, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reported that over half of the 550 million working days lost annually in the U.S. from absenteeism are stress related.
The phenomenon of job stress has been a mainstay in American culture since the economic and corporate boom of the 1980s, when it became problematic enough for the CDC to commission a report about how to best combat the issue. Thirty years later, the problem has only grown. It now impacts both the health of the individual and the bottom line of every industry. While stress in the workplace is a nation-wide epidemic, there are concrete strategies you can use to combat it both on an individual-level and office-wide.
Information is power
The first step to help your office reduce stress is to make sure everyone is aware of what stress really means, both for the individual and your company. Workplace stress doesn’t necessarily only manifest at work, and there’s a myriad of symptoms associated with it—and everyone experiences these differently. For example, stress symptoms can include feelings of anxiety, irritability, depression, fatigue, muscle tension or headaches, social withdrawal, apathy or loss of interest at work, trouble sleeping, problems concentrating, stomach issues, and substance abuse.
As this list indicates, not only does workplace stress affect an individual’s personal life and health (it most commonly manifests as heart disease), but it also impacts a company’s productivity and profitability. The AIS estimates that “job stress carries a price tag for U.S. industry estimated at over $300 billion annually as a result of: accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity, direct medical, legal, and insurance costs, and workers’ compensation awards as well as tort and FELA judgments.”
This is potent information, but how do you make sure your team members know about it and can take advantage to reduce stress? If you are an office manager or in a people and culture role, you may need to get buy-in from your leadership team before launching a campaign to reduce stress. It's important that the majority of people in your office understand the benefits of stress reduction. You could prepare a report on the benefits of stress reduction in the workplace, or share information in a weekly newsletter that’s displayed in a prominent, physical place or emailed to your colleagues.
A sense of control
According to Andrew D. Wittman in the Harvard Business Review, when “individuals give…their personal definition of stress” almost all responses “contain some thread pertaining to lack of control.” The AIS agrees that “increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands,” are the most prominent factor in an individual’s amount of stress. The solution? Find ways to give your coworkers a better sense of control in their everyday working lives.
In a comprehensive list of practical strategies to reduce stress at work, Forbes suggests the following tactics increase employees’ sense of control:
- Flexible scheduling enables employees to decide how they can best fit their full time work week into their personal lives.
- An open door policy with leadership and Human Resources. This can boost positive communication, give everyone a chance to ask questions, and ensure they have clearly defined job parameters and goals.
- A mechanism to ask questions and make suggestions anonymously, which are regularly reviewed and shared with staff. This can give stressed employees a way to unload without repercussions, and also keep lines of communication open and honest.
- Share time management tips in a weekly newsletter.
While these ideas may seem straightforward, ComPsych reports that if each person can control their workload effectively and know definitively what that workload includes, you can reduce stress at work up to 36%.
Cultivate value and inclusion
Related to a need for control over their working life is each employees’ need to feel invested in their work and valued by their employer. Work with your leadership team to see if you can find room for employee appreciation in your budget and plan activities that show how much you value them and help reduce stress and promote wellness. These could include activities such as a midweek masseuse in the lobby or a free yoga class, or a scheduled unplugged Friday afternoon happy hour.
For an ongoing strategy that builds relationships, consider a “buddy program” where everyone in the office is paired up with a work friend and confidante from a different department to promote holistic teamwork. You could also use a service like Donut, which pairs coworkers that don’t interact regularly for a casual coffee meeting. Not only has research shown that close, confiding relationships protect you from many stresses, but cross-department collaboration promotes active learning at work versus simple relaxation. Psychology Today reported that new research from scientists at the University of Michigan found that learning something new at work served as a stress buffer, whereas relaxation strategies had no effect. In other words, doing something active, such as learning about a coworker, rather than passive, such as distracting yourself by relaxation, was crucial.
Find a healthy balance
While the pressure to be constantly working is a mainstay in many offices, think of it this way: if a retail or food service worker is legally required to take an hour lunch break and two ten minute breaks during a nine hour shift in most states, why not an office worker? According to the AIS over half of surveyed workers “said they often spend 12-hour days on work related duties and an equal number frequently skip lunch because of the stress of job demands.” While a long lunch may not possible every workday in a typical office, there are other strategies you can use to reduce stress and promote wellness:
Increase exercise and physical activities: Increased exercise is reported to help reduce “stress associated with physical problems like a weakened immune system, stomach aches, high blood pressure, hair loss and headaches.” Encourage walking meetings or form walking groups that meet before the start of the work day. You might also consider offering free or reduced gym memberships or provide regular exercise classes in the office during lunch.
Encourage healthy eating: Stress-eating and dependency on caffeine contribute heavily to stress-related health issues, especially heart disease. To counter this, consider providing free healthy snacks and caffeine-free alternative beverages, along with information about the health benefits of your offerings.
Brighten up your office: A well designed, aesthetically pleasing workplace that includes reduced clutter, brighter colors, increased natural light, and an environment full of plant life can lift moods, boost energy, and reduce stress as a result.
Lastly, there are simple acts each worker can perform on their own—both at their desk and at home—to help them reduce stress. A popular technique for decreasing workplace stress is a focus on mindfulness: meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, active engagement of the senses, organization, purposeful goal setting, being assertive, and, above all, laughter.
Encourage your employees to take these strategies home for a work/life balance that includes a regular sleep schedule and confiding in loved ones. Since most companies aren’t able to increase vacation time or hire office comedians, relaxation techniques are the most individualized of all stress management concepts. Make sure your workers know the benefits and the company’s desire to see them healthy, happy, and free of negative stressors while you disseminate the appropriate information about taking breaks to breath, listen to music, and laugh.
With the AIS reporting that “the severity of job stress depends on the magnitude of the demands that are being made and the individual’s sense of control or decision-making latitude he or she has in dealing with them,” giving your employees the ability to choose how to moderate their stress by teaching them about it is the best way to decrease office stress levels. While you can’t necessarily negotiate every individual’s time for them, you can offer them ideas about how to better manage stress day to day. From flexible workdays and masseurs to healthy snacks and laughter, it’s possible to reduce individual stress and boost total productivity in your office: just take some deep breaths and start today.
Illustration by Tin Nguyen