Effective Strategies for Managing Stress in the Workplace

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Did you know there is a mental and physical health condition that is linked to all 6 major causes of death in North America? According to the American Psychology Association, this condition is an underlying or explicit catalyst for 75% of physician visits in the United States and Canada as well. What if we told you that you’ve experienced this condition in your life not just periodically but likely quite often? 

Stress affects a consistent 8 in 10 people in the United States alone and these numbers are reflected in many other countries. The remaining 2 in 10 people will also experience stress at some point in their lives, making this one of the most unavoidable - yet serious - conditions of mental health. What’s more, stress is also a physical condition - both in the way it manifests in our bodies and in the way we react to it. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the impact of stress in the workplace, some of its most common causes, and how managers can help support their employees by introducing effective strategies for managing stress in the workplace.

The Impact of Stress in the Workplace 

There’s a duality between stress and work. Our work often causes stress, and stress can have a negative impact on our work. Most employees who experience stress at work are reacting to the pressure to perform in some way. Unfortunately, there’s a paradox here. Stressing about productivity and output can lead to depression, anxiety, worry, confusion, and fatigue which aren’t helping you be more productive and, more importantly, detract from your well-being.

According to a study conducted by Health and Safety Executive in 2017, 12.5 million workdays were lost due to work-related stress that year. Stress and correlating anxiety and depression are collectively the leading cause for employees to leave work and go on disability, too. We’re losing work and workers to the effects of stress which is largely caused by the pressures attached to work. 

What Causes Stress in the Workplace?

It might be intuitive that work is stressful by nature -- after all, it’s not called “play.” However, that assumption pushes us to accept an overflow of stress that isn’t normal or healthy. The question is, how do we separate what’s acceptable from what’s harmful? 

The American Stress Institute lists these as the four main causes of stress: 

  1. The amount, frequency, or demand of our workload (46%)
  2. Conflicts, interpersonal issues, and attitudes (28%)
  3. The pressure to balance work with personal lives (20%)
  4. A perceived or actual lack of job security or adequate compensation (6%)

How Managers Can Contribute to Stress Management

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are many practices proven to reduce stress at work and even promote greater mental well-being outside of work. Consequently, many of these stress intervention strategies would either naturally fall to the Office Manager and/or senior level leaders inside of an organization.

1. Implement a Mental Health and Safety Protocol

We focus heavily on the physical safety of our employees, and for good reason. However, it’s equally important to prioritize your employees’ emotional well-being. Good health and safety policies will include an emotional and mental health component which might include a policy for peer-identification of signs of distress or despair, suicide prevention programming, and steps for conflict resolution.

2. Gather and Circulate Mental Health Resources

Make sure that employees who experience any stress-related emotion or effect can work through it with employer-provided resources. This isn’t just about helping employees help themselves, but also building a culture around de-stigmatizing the perceived taboo of discussing emotions and mental health in a work setting. 

3. Provide Safe Spaces for Employee Questions and Feedback

Many employees feel silenced at work. Our fear of appearing vulnerable or worse, facing a punitive response, stops us from telling our supervisors that we’re overworked, asking for a needed process change, or taking deserved breaks. Instead, make sure there are anonymous and trusted places for employees to share.

4. Advocate the Use of Sick Days and PTO 

Even if your role doesn’t coincide with HR in your organization, you can empower your team to take advantage of their given right to take time off. Create a plan to send reminders to anyone who hasn’t taken a day off in a certain span of time. Encourage team leaders to react positively when employees do use their days off, instead of showing frustration. When your facility creates a culture of balance between work and life, your people will thrive.

5. Set Up Your Space to Stave Off Stress

Living organisms are massively impacted by their environment physically and mentally. At work, a place where many employees have lesser control over the conditions of their environment, facility managers and commercial designers have a tall order to fill. Public health, work safety, productivity, and satisfaction are all considerations to which environment has an impact.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal, Behavioral Scientist and Inclusivity Consultant, tells Forbes: “By providing environments that support and encourage employee well-being organizations can ensure that well-being is not something that comes as an after-thought. Instead, mental health should be at the forefront of any workplace design.” To do this, Dr. Agarwal encourages commercial architects and building teams to consider three key factors:

1. Colors

Color psychology plays a major part in how we feel in a given space and there’s science behind it. Color impacts our body and brain, entering as waves of light into the hypothalamus, and sending signals to our endocrine system. Colors should be chosen with this -- not just branding or aesthetic -- in mind.

2. Collaboration

We need time to be alone and think. We need time to collaborate and build relationships. We also need effectual spaces for each of these actions to take place. Too much noise and too much quiet can both be limiting to focus and comfort at work.

3. Creativity

Humans naturally need time and space to produce new ideas. At the current speed of technology and business, we rarely give ourselves enough time to truly contemplate, play with ideas, and engage with inspiration in a low-pressure way. Creating space both mentally and physically for creativity to take place can reduce the pressure to produce ideas on a dime. 

Other important considerations for your building or facility would be windows and access to non-fluorescent light, plants to liven up your office space, as well as some autonomy for employees to add personal elements to their own workspace, to feel more at ease.

6. Offer Tips for Self-Management 

Ultimately, no organization can entirely prevent stress for its employees. The work we do and the pressure to perform will endure. As we continue to have meaningful conversations about the relationship between our work and our health, though, it’s important that each employee can self-regulate and know when he or she needs to step away -- for five minutes or forever. As an office manager, you can be their biggest supporter at work by offering strategies they can use independently when stress calls.

Practical Strategies for Managing Stress in the Workplace

Next time a member of your team appears to be overwhelmed with stress, here are 4 tips you can share with them to help empower them to manage (and ultimately, reduce) their stress level effectively: 

1. Know Your Stressors 

Stress management has two sides: prevention and reversal. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, the trick to preventing debilitating stress in the workplace is to understand what causes it, for you. We can assume that the tight deadlines, toxic colleagues, and high-stakes projects we’ve discussed are stressful for all of us but dig deeper. Do you find that you’re most stressed during presentations and public speaking? Does technology (and its many quirks) send you over the edge? Is the source of your stress a particular client, colleague, or project? 

If you can pinpoint the root of your stress, you can prepare, predict, and prevent it. For the unavoidable things, you must encounter or handle, create gaps of time on either side of the hours you spend in that headspace. Cradle stressful projects between activities and teams you enjoy and which replenish your energy. Note: If every hour of your job is unmanageably stressful, you’re going to have to consider whether your current role or organization is a fit for you. Avoidance only works part-time. 

2. Know Your Signs

The other prong of stress management, reversal, happens after you’ve already experienced the signs. Like any other condition of health, the earlier you can identify the symptoms, the better chance you will have to act and set yourself on a better course. 

The early signs of stress can include both emotional and physical symptoms. Emotional signs might include less tolerance for surprises, growing impatience, feelings of panic, or a wave of inferiority and fear of failure. The physical signs might look like an increase in sweat production, trembling fingers, headaches, grinding teeth, muscle strain, and more. 

The key is to zoom into your own personal signs. Next time you encounter that stressful colleague or project, note how your body and mind change. Do you feel more negative, frustrated, angry, or closed off? Do you feel shoulder tension, foggy brain, or an increased heart rate? When you know your signs you can start to identify and eliminate the sources behind them. 

3. Ask for Help

When stress begins to creep in and hinder your productivity and affect your mood, it’s a sign that it’s time to delegate, seek support, or offload. In an interview with Marcel Schwantes for Thrive Global, Purdue professor of Health and Wellness Mark Maule advises employees plagued by stress to seek support. 

Whether this looks like offloading tasks to junior employees or those who can handle them, asking for more time on a project, or simply venting to a coworker who understands, it will not only help alleviate the stress you’re feeling in the moment but give you more space and energy to complete what’s on your plate. This could prevent further delays that will only extend your stress into the future and, as a bonus, you’ll build and deepen relationships with colleagues. 

4. Self-Advocate 

Stress can pile up and remain unaddressed which exacerbates its effects and can cause additional points of contention or conflict which only regenerate more stress. Many employees who have felt the negative impact of stress at work are afraid to discuss it with their supervisor(s) or with HR. 

The fear of being fired, mocked, brushed off or held back from opportunities and promotions due to perceived weakness or inability to perform holds many employees back from getting the help they need. The best thing you can do is to help create an environment where employees feel they can be vulnerable, honest, and self-advocating. 

Managers Play a Key Role in Reducing Stress in the Workplace

Though strategies to prevent, reverse, and self-manage stress are important, the onus is not on employees to tackle this problem alone. Managers at all levels in a company should pay close attention to the stress levels of their employees. 

Playing an active role in empowering employees to manage their stress effectively can help prevent burnout and contribute to a more positive experience for employees, a stronger company culture, and an increase in employee retention.