Friend or foe: What place does stress have in the workplace?
Mention the word stress in conversations in and outside of work and the connotations are largely negative. Many people are conditioned to believe that stress is bad for us and must be avoided or reduced. However, some forms of stress can have a positive effect on us and their presence can bring several benefits to the workplace.
What kind of stress is acceptable for the work environment and how can we as leaders tell when stress is doing more damage than good?
When outside factors are a source of stress for employees, what responsibility does an employer have to support them?
Let’s consider the place that stress has in the workplace and how we can build healthy, thriving cultures.
What is stress and how does it affect us?
Humans experience daily levels of stress. Our feelings and physiological symptoms are our body’s natural reaction to a demanding situation.
Studies by Dr Hans Selye into the biology of stress have linked this to the prehistoric era, where man and animal shared the same intrinsic reactions to a threat to life, illness and injury.
Our body has an “alarm reaction” to prepare us for fighting off an attack, running from a life-threatening situation or an illness:
- heart rate and breathing quickens
- senses sharpen
- blood flows to the brain and muscles rather than our digestive tract, liver, kidneys and skin
- a whole host of hormones are released.
In an intense moment, our bodies prioritise the preservation of life rather than digestion, detoxification and reproduction.
In the context of today’s’ society, the ringing of our phone, a looming deadline and a stream of notifications are not life threatening, however, they are ongoing. Indeed, subsequent studies have found that “we are designed to respond efficiently to the types of stress that our prehistoric ancestors experienced; not the type that we face today in our contemporary, technological society.”
As our brain and body reacts to numerous, recurring modern-day pressures with the same physiological responses as a threat to life, many people find themselves experiencing feelings and symptoms that become long-term and chronic. Individually we all have different thresholds of resilience for coping with the fast-paced and high expectations of our society. What affects some is not an issue for others and this makes stress a deeply personal issue.
Different types of stress
Although our reactions to stress remain the same as our forefathers, there are marked differences – and triggers – between their daily reality of survival and our modern society.
Not every challenging situation we face is a life threatening one, or indeed even a negative one.
Eustress – positive stress
Contrary to popular belief, positive stressors have a place at home and at work. Its presence can often help us get things done, spark creativity and boost energy. In fact, without any form of stress response we would unlikely make it out of bed on a morning!
Eustress is perceived as “within our coping abilities”. To achieve certain things feels exciting, motivating and can help us to concentrate on the task in hand. Chairing a meeting, negotiating a pay rise or buying a house are all examples of positive personal stressors for some people who will thrive in a temporary state of eustress.
Relishing those challenging moments will help us to grow and identify those triggers that are more likely to cause distress.
Distress – negative stress
Distress refers to negative stress that feels outside our control and unpleasant. Prolonged periods of distress at work or at home can affect our performance, motivation levels and can lead to mental or physical health problems.
Triggers of distress may be things like an out-of-control inbox, excessive work demands, lack of training, support or resources or conflicts with colleagues. Outside of work, the death of a spouse, money problems or issues with other family members are examples of negative personal stressors.
Distress doesn’t have to stem from a life-altering event; for many, negative stress is caused by the little things in our whirlwind lives such as having too many messages to respond to at once.
Stressors are not always limited to outside factors. Internal events such as a person’s individual fears and self-limiting beliefs can cause distress.
Ultimately, it is how individuals react to things that define whether or not stress is healthy or a hindrance.
The effect of stress in the workplace
The impacts of negative stress can quickly influence our performance:
- Brain ill-health leads to impaired cognitive function – e.g. decision making, focus, memory, presence in the moment, ability to listen
- Energy is reduced affecting motivation
- Mood shifts often affect teamwork and relationships.
Statistics show that negative stress is having a huge impact on UK businesses.
According to the Health & Safety Executive Stress Report 2018, 15.4 million working days were lost due to work related stress, depression or anxiety across Great Britain in 2017/18.
The impact of this lost time costs UK employers “£26 billion […] £1,035 per employee, per year.”
Presenteeism (the loss in productivity that occurs when employees come to work but function at less than full capacity because of ill health) is also on the rise. “Studies suggest that presenteeism from mental ill health alone costs the UK economy £15.1 billion per annum.”
With the costs associated with negative stress rising, can employers afford to be complacent about their employees’ wellbeing? Even if your workforce is present, the consequences of a disengaged, stagnating and frustrated team are just as damaging.
Creating a thriving workplace
As an employer, what responsibilities do you think you have to mitigate the effects of distress within the workplace, especially if some of the issues experienced may stem from an employees’ home life or internal beliefs?
Let’s think of it this way: every organisation takes the time and effort to hire great people with the right skills and experience for the role. It makes sense to ensure that teams have the health, mindset and environment in which to thrive so that employees can bring their absolute best – driving engagement, performance and loyalty.
A responsible employer knows what it means for their people to thrive in all areas of their lives. It’s imperative for an organisation to invest in both preventing and managing excess stress and enable individuals to build resilience strategies that serve them in work and life.
Simple ways to reduce stress in the workplace
What can you do as a leader to encourage eustress for peak performance, rather than distress in your teams?
- Know your people as individuals; open the lines of communication and understand what makes them thrive
- Examine your business strategy and processes – managing stress and positively influencing wellbeing is often part of the day-to-day, not a separate programme
- Ensure your people have the capacity and encouragement to nourish themselves, recharge and re-energise
- Be a true role model to your people and seek help when you need it.
Encouragingly, “76% of line managers believe employee wellbeing is their responsibility” yet sadly only “22% have received some form of training on mental health at work” (Deloitte). These figures show that there is still a disconnect between what we think we should be doing and what is actually being achieved.
When people thrive, organisations excel
Stress is a given in the modern world and eustress can have a positive place in our lives. However, the impact of prolonged, negative stress will hit the bottom line of organisations unless employees know how to manage their teams and develop coping strategies to thrive in the modern world.
Would you identify stress as having a positive or negative effect on your teams and how do you encourage a healthy, thriving environment both in and outside of work?
To discuss any of the issues raised in this blog, or to explore how I can support you to create the environment and practices in which your teams can thrive, contact me to book a discovery call.
You may also be interested in my Resilience Programme for Teams, which you can check out here.