Workplace Stress: The Silent Productivity Killer

It’s hard to stress this enough: we’re working under pressure, and it’s getting worse.

According to the Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 study, 74% of people in the UK had felt so stressed in the past year that they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. In 2019, the American Institute of Stress reported that 83% of U.S. workers suffer specifically from work-related stress.

In over 25 years with Messina Group, I’ve seen firsthand how workplace pressure can impact performance — changing roles, shifting teams, tight budgets, and unpredictable resources are just some of the stressors in the struggle. Sometimes, it’s enough to chase talent right out the door and into a whole new job.

I’m going to lay out some of the facts here about current stress-based statistics and trending benefits, and then we’ll get into the good part: how to solve the problem in your own workplace.

Meet the Modern Employee Market

Today’s job market belongs to employees, and they’re looking to HR professionals for help in balancing workplace stress — and they want real-time benefits, too. In fact, a recent survey from OfficeTeam found that 73% of today’s workers are directly influenced by health and wellness perks when choosing a job.

Gen Xers, in particular, are looking for a little relief. A Welltok survey from early this year indicated that 70% of Gen Xers think their companies should do more to support holistic health and manage stress. Over half of the survey respondents had “seriously considered” changing jobs because the pressure was too much.

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Mental, behavioral, and emotional health support was called out explicitly in this year’s 2020 kickoff article from CNBC for the “buzziest trends in workplace benefits.”

Dollars and Sense: Stress vs. Your Bottom Line

In working with talent, it’s always a top priority to make sure people are happy. But the stress epidemic is hurting our workplaces on a much larger scale: it’s taking a chunk out of the bottom line. Just take a look at these statistics compiled by the American Institute of Stress:

  • American businesses lose up to $300 billion each year as a direct result of workplace stress.
  • Work-related stress has been reported to cause 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs — every year.
  • Roughly one million workers miss their shift every day for stress-related reasons.

What Can Today’s HR Do?

Well, well, well — there’s no time like the beginning of the year to take a deep look at your team, your workplace programs, and the benefits involved. After all, many workers are pursuing improved health and wellness goals of their own right now. How can we inspire and support our teams? What tools can help them to combat stress in a productive, positive way?

  • Build Pitch-Perfect Programs: Remember that, no matter how great a manager you may be, your people will still have good days and bad days. The magic of crafting a great wellness program is in paying attention to what’s sustainable, positive, and low pressure. According to studies published in The Wellness Syndrome by Stockholm University’s Carl Cederstrom and City University London’s Andre Spicer, corporate wellness programs can quickly spin out of control and introduce more stress than less. In his interview with the Harvard Business Review, Spicer says, “Look for small changes that can make a big difference. Too often, people go all in on investments like treadmill desks when they could get the same payoff by giving their employees natural light, fresh air, and some fresh fruit.” Pay attention to your team. What roadblocks are stressing or demotivating them? Are there ways to make your work environment less disruptive, or more comfortable? Can you isolate some of their specific struggles?
  • Embrace Downtime: In short, we’ve found that break time can be a very, very good thing — both for ourselves and our teams. In 2019, the World Health Organization officially classified workplace burn-out as an ‘occupational syndrome.’ Encourage your team to build daily routines that incorporate healthful, productive downtime to stay balanced and reduce stress. Taking a coffee break with a direct report, encouraging daytime walks, and incorporating short stretching sessions can all work wonders on our mental health. Even a 15-minute mental break from meetings and deadlines, just to set goals or read relevant industry news, helps us all to take a breath.
  • Provide Quality Tools and Training: Starbucks has already made headlines in 2020 for expanding its mental health benefits to combat stress. Their solution to fighting stress? Small investments now prevent big breakdowns later. They’ve added meditation apps to their suite of benefits for all employees, partnered with a number of international foundations to promote mental health awareness, and introduced dedicated training for all U.S. and Canadian store managers from the National Council for Behavioral Health. By integrating support for stressful days from the beginning, their teams can address problems as soon as they arise — and no one has to lose any sleep.

Author Ellen Mullarkey is a Vice President of Business Development with Messina Group. Ellen joined Messina more than 25 years ago after graduating from the University of Iowa, and has been instrumental in establishing and expanding Messina’s staffing divisions. She is deeply dedicated to building enduring relationships with clients and spending time getting to know their challenges.

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