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Is Your Employees' Stress Stressing You Out?

January 17, 2023
By Pivot
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Short Answer: YES!!! 

Does it affect your well-being and ability to do your best work? YES!!! 

(Did you know stress is physiologically more contagious than Covid?!)

Does it affect the company’s bottom line? YES!!! 

What can you do? LOTS!!! 

But…how do you choose what to do from the overwhelming number of options? How do you create a realistic strategy for such a complex problem with so many variables, one that will optimize your most important resource—your humans—and create a culture where both individuals and the organization thrive? 

Firstly, forget the Band-Aid approaches. Stress levels have risen to the equivalent of internal and external hemorrhages that will hardly self-heal with Band-Aids, special rewards, and pizza parties. As in medicine it’s time to shift from a disease model of treating negative outcomes of stress to a proactive approach, based in the science of human thriving, brilliance and resilience, productivity, connection, health, and happiness. 

Understanding the Context

Always a good start to a big problem. 

Stress was escalating long before Covid made it a can’t-ignore topic. We should be grateful it’s finally considered an urgent discussion. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress was costing US businesses $300billion/year a decade before 2019. And stress levels have been rising ever since. The 2022 APA Stress in America report cites 34% of adults say their stress is completely overwhelming most days (translate- they can’t function well as employees!) The rates are higher for young adults, women (62% for young women!), blacks, and LGBTQIA+. Three quarters of adults report a negative health impact of stress within the last month (very costly, not to mention sad). In fact, stress is a factor in 70-90% of all healthcare visits, either causing or exacerbating disease, or contributing to the scary rates of mental illness. 

How did we get here? Sadly, in our pursuit of “success” most of us were never taught one of the most critical lessons: how to manage ourselves, our physical, mental, and emotional energy, in this complex world. Much of stress management is energy management. We take better care of our cell phone batteries than ourselves. We know this doesn’t work in sports—why do we keep trying it in business?

Humans are amazingly adaptable, but we are better wired to handle the dangers of survival (acute stress followed by recovery) than the chronic stress of today’s world. Our culture rewards behaviors that work against our physiology and undermine our brilliance and resilience—24/7 access, decreasing human connection, blatant disregard for simple human needs. It’s time to be part of the movement to apply the science of human performance, figure out how we work best, and learn new patterns and skills to excel. 

The High Cost of Stress

One of the challenges to tackling the stress is the sheer messiness of it, from causes to measurement to effects. It impacts everything, from the functioning of human systems to the functioning of every aspect of the workplace—all interwoven. And though we all share the same wiring, our experience of stress varies widely. Even assessing and measuring stress is complicated and solutions need to be able to be customized. 

The costs break down into absenteeism, accidents, workman’s comp, healthcare costs, legal costs, turnover, and probably the most significant: presenteeism (>$160billion/year!). We all know what it’s like to try to focus and produce when we are overtired, overwhelmed, or worried. Stress is the enemy of engagement, and often not because your employees don’t want to be engaged—they just don’t have the bandwidth. 

The Benefits of Resilience

Healthy systems from bodies to organizations to planets share certain traits. They are dynamic, adapting and growing in response to demands. They are flexible, like healthy arteries responding to changing demands of the heart or healthy trees bending in the wind. Energy expended is repleted in natural rhythms. Resilient organizations comprised of resilient individuals can handle challenges and change with a growth mindset, stay competitive, and continually recharge the energy of the individuals and the system. They also tend to have happier, healthier, more motivated and productive employees, focused on values and meaning. The good news: once thought to be an inherent trait, we now know that resilience is a skill set that can be taught! 

Sounds great... what's next?

Like most good changes in life, building resilience starts with clarifying the goal, understanding your options, harnessing what is already working, and creating strategies to move toward the goal. Next comes breaking those strategies down into realistic , motivating action steps, followed by lots of practice, reevaluation, adjustments, more practice, and a good sprinkling of celebrations along the way. And as well all know…easier said than done—especially when you are stressed! 

The very wiring of the human stress reaction, designed for our survival, concentrates our energies and blood flow in our muscles and faster, more reactive, lower brain functions, not in our creative, problem-solving, smarter/wiser, slower frontal lobes. Great when you need to run from a rabid wildebeest (when stopping to think is not good for survival,) not so great when you want to tackle such a complex, chronic, and frankly, overwhelming issue. (BTW, this survival orientation is also why we have mirror neurons to “catch” each other’s stress. If there’s a wild wildebeest outside, I’d better rev up my stress system for survival as well!)

The good news: we have learned a lot in recent years—about individual and organizational stress, resilience, behavior change, motivation, performance, and the brain. And together we can implement strategies that leverage this new science and our hard-earned wisdom to educate and motivate us all toward health, happiness, and meaningful lives. The together part is science—we are also wired to be smarter when we engage our social brain as well as our individual thinking brain.

For now, start with you. Put you on your calendar and take a little time to think about how you work best, what you need more of, what you might say no to, and how you could sneak small recharges into your day, so you create the bandwidth to start tackling the resilience challenge. Don’t forget to notice and celebrate any choices that start to renew your energy! Self-care is leadership! 

Next time we will look at what we know works in resilience.

Author: Cynthia Ackrill, MD, PCC, FAIS

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