Stress and the Workplace

If you were to ask the average American how they feel in a typical work day, you’re likely to get the same answer:  Stressed.  A 2010 study by the American Psychological Association found that stress levels are on the rise.  The top three causes of stress in order:  Money, work, and the economy – all of which go hand-in-hand.   An alarming 70% of participants said that work is a “very significant” contributor to their daily stress. 

The same study found other causes of stress to include family responsibilities, relationships, personal health, housing costs, etc.  Although this news isn’t exactly groundbreaking, an employee’s stress level not only affects work performance, but high stress levels over time can have a significant overall impact on one’s health. 

Stress-related problems contribute to an estimated 75-90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians, according to the American Institute of Stress.  When an individual is stressed, the hypothalamus, a small region in the brain, sends signals within the body to release hormones.  These hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, cause an increase in heart rate, elevated blood pressure, energy boost, and make up your body’s “fight or flight” reaction.  When an individual is continuously stressed, this reaction is always present and, long-term, can present an increase of health conditions, including heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression, obesity, and memory impairment to name a few.

As an employer it’s important to recognize that each employee is battling different issues, and provide employees with the tools and resources to better manage stress.  Although employees are physically present at work, many are battling issues in their personal lives.  More and more employers continue to offer flex time, which allows employees to work flexible hours to better fit their schedule.  Offering employees flexibility is among the top reasons employees value employers.  Another great resource is Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs.  There are a variety of EAPs available to employers of all sizes and these programs assist employees with counseling on a variety of topics, including relationships, financial / legal issues, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. 

Different people respond to stress in different ways.  For some, it may be a trip to the vending machine; for others, it may be a five minute smoking break.  As an employer, creating an environment of wellness allows employees to better manage stress by giving them healthy options.   Offering a weekly yoga class, chair massages, lunch time walking programs, or giving employees access to fresh fruit, are all low cost ideas that serve as healthy alternatives.  Investing in employees’ health over time will ensure that employees are happier, and make your organization a better place to work.

Stress-free Steps

Are your employees feeling stressed?  Try these steps …

Breathing:  A stressful phone call or the aftermath of an angry customer can send stress levels through the roof.  Take a few minutes to focus on deep breathing techniques. Try inhaling through the nose for five counts and then exhaling for 10 seconds.  Repeat for a minute or two for an instant stress reliever.

Exercise:  Get up away from your desk and move around.  The best thing you can do for your stress is to find time, ideally 30 minutes a day, to exercise.  Whether it’s a 15-minute walk at lunch or taking the stairs, instead of the elevator, exercise does wonders for stress.  The American Council of Exercise found that one exercise session generates 90-120 minutes of relaxation response, leaving you feeling more relaxed. 

Fresh Air:  Being cooped up in a cubical all day or stuck in the back of a warehouse surrounded by workers can cause stress levels to flare.  Take five minutes to walk outside, breath in fresh air, and focus on nature, to leave you feeling fresh and rejuvenated. 

Meditate:  Often when people hear the word meditate they think back to the day of ancient Buddha, when actually the word “meditate” is defined as “thinking deeply or focus for a time for spiritual purposes or to relax”.  Meditation does not have to be complicated and is different for every person.  Take a few minutes at your desk, close your eyes, and recall a special time or event in your life that focuses your attention away from work, and clears your mind.  

Eat Healthy:  In many individuals, stress results in the consumption of unhealthy food.  A candy bar or piece of sugary cake can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then plummet, leaving you hungry and agitated.  Instead, choose complex carbs, which are digested more slowly to stabilize blood sugar levels throughout the day.