Stress is a normal emotion every person experiences from time to time. When you are faced with a stressful event, a release of hormones is triggered. It’s the way our bodies respond to demands and dangers. Stress, however, is not something you should feel all or most of the time. Regular or chronic stress can lead to illness and other mental and physical health problems. That’s something no one wants to endure. It can make it more difficult for someone to access higher-level brain functions like logic, reasoning, problem-solving, listening, and empathy, which are useful for managing stress AND being a great employee.
Many people lead an overly stressful life, even more so now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. It's no wonder that someone may seem less able to think clearly and work collaboratively on days with stressful situations. Its important in the workforce to understand that and know recommendations to make a workplace less stressful to ensure the best outcomes from their employees.
The workplace can be a high-stress environment. Employers can help employees' stress levels by addressing root causes and helping to provide possible solutions. For a more in-depth look, read on...
What employers can do to make the workplace less stressful
Not every stressor in the workplace can be eliminated, but some can be. In any case, stress can be managed. It doesn’t have to have the last word. Here are some practices that can help you make the workplace less stressful:
- Don’t assume the worst. Since the workplace is home to so much stress, it’s easy to grow cynical about the employment relationship. There are indeed bad employees, horrible bosses, and toxic cultures. Workplace problems can be entrenched and systematic. Nonetheless, the employment relationship isn’t uniquely bad among human relationships, and it’s a mistake and counterproductive to think it is. There are star employees, terrific bosses, and great places to work—and these aren’t rare. Assuming the worst about your employers or employees, or seeing them primarily as threats or liabilities, is like assuming all your friends are going to betray you. It’s an attitude that creates more drama, adds more stress, and ruins otherwise functional relationships. So, as Cy Wakeman says in her book No Ego, “stop believing everything you think.” Instead, advises Wakeman, ask yourself what you know for sure and base your thinking and your decisions on what is, in fact, real. Tell your employees to do the same.
- Always act in good faith. There are times when the right thing to do is going to cause someone stress. For employers, it might be discipline for a policy violation, a poor performance review because of unmet expectations, or a layoff due to a shortage of work. For employees, it might be providing candid feedback to a peer, asking a coworker to cover a shift, or setting a hard deadline for a project. At some point, you’re going to cause someone stress, and that’s likely okay. The important thing is not to try to spare people necessary stress, but to approach decisions that will cause someone this stress in good faith. Good faith shows that you care about their success and wellbeing. It also helps put others in a better frame of mind to accept the demands or pressures they are faced with.
- Address sexism, racism, and other forms of inequality. These are stressors that every employer should acknowledge and work to eliminate. Unlike other stressors, they are not inevitable.Microaggressions, in particular, deserve to be called out. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch, and Laura Morgan Roberts explain that microaggressions are “verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group. For Black people, they are ubiquitous across daily work and life.” These indignities are not “small,” as the term micro might seem to imply, but rather frequent and casual.The authors cite research suggesting that “subtle forms of interpersonal discrimination like microaggressions are at least as harmful as more-overt expressions of discrimination.” For one thing, continual hostility and discrimination rob people of the time and space they need to rest and recharge.In these situations, employers have a responsibility not only to help employees manage their stress but also, more importantly, to do everything they can to stop the hostility and discrimination that’s causing the stress. Sexism and racism, either subtle or overt, must not be tolerated.
- Promote support networks. We’re not meant to struggle with stress alone. We need others, and they need us. You can facilitate friendships and support systems among employees by setting up virtual chat programs and video conferencing apps (and in-person spaces for fun when the pandemic is over). Reassure employees that it’s fine for them to take a little time during the workday to reach out to others about non-work matters and participate in virtual games and other fun group activities. Managers can set the tone by participating in these chats and activities and encouraging employees to join in.
- Provide mental health benefits, if possible. In some cases, employees who want to get the mental health care they need can’t afford the costs. Losing pay from a missed work shift might be too great a hardship, and effective treatments might be financially out of reach. These financial hindrances can exacerbate stress. In other cases, employees can afford the time off and the treatments, but they can’t make regular appointments work with their schedules. Offering paid time off, health insurance benefits or flexible schedules can help employees get the care they need.An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) may be another great option for employees feeling overwhelmed by stress. It gives employees access to expert, confidential assistance for substance abuse issues, relationship troubles, financial problems, mental health conditions, and other major stressors.
- Give people permission and time to rest and recharge. When a workplace situation causes someone to have a fight-or-flight response, it may be best to remove themselves from the situation before they say or do something they later regret or that causes more harm. Make sure employees know that they can remove themselves from an overly stressful situation. They shouldn’t have the added stress of worrying that they’ll be punished for doing what they need to do to de-escalate the situation or get away from it so they can calm themselves and refocus.Aside from allowing these in-the-moment decisions to pause and step away, consider setting time aside during the week or month for employees to participate in activities like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. There are known techniques, such as deep breathing, for eliciting a relaxation response when someone is experiencing stress. Educate yourself and your employees on these healthy practices for managing stress.