Given the fast pace and scale of change in our modern world, chronic workplace stress is on the rise. Digital disruption, global market fluctuations, hyper-competitiveness and constant introductions of the next new thing demand a flexibility, agility and resilience that many employees and organisations don’t possess. On top of this, other stressors such as working long hours, heavy workloads, unreasonable expectations, tight deadlines, job insecurity, and toxic relationships with bosses and co-workers further contribute to the problem.
According to Noa Belling, a Principal Consultant on corporate wellness for The Change Consulting Group, “Stress often spills over into home life too. An example is when energy is low and irritability is high from long work hours or from working with overly demanding personalities. Another example is when long work hours detract from family time or when emails or text messages relating to work are sent at all hours, blurring the boundary between work and home.” As relationships and time spent with family are affected, the lines of where the stress is coming from can also become blurred to confuse matters further. This can make it harder to find remedies or get the respite and rest needed from our personal lives to be able to recharge and improve resilience at work.”
Belling, who is also a somatic psychologist and best-selling author (most recently of The Mindful Body), works with organisations to help design and embed corporate wellness programmes in the workplace.
She suggests the following five ways that employers can proactively improve workplace stress management:
1. Make stress management a workplace wellness priority
With burn-out now recognised by The World Health Organisation as an “occupational phenomenon”, it is time for organisations to get stress management to the top of their wellness agendas. “There’s still considerable stigma attached to mental health issues in many workplaces,” says Belling. “Through wellness programmes that include offerings like informative, psycho-educational talks and workshops as well as counselling and coaching support for employees, companies can work to normalise mental health issues and build organisational skills for identifying, talking about and dealing with them effectively. When mental health issues are de-stigmatised and emotional well-being is prioritised, a culture of wellness can be created as an organisation-wide priority.”
2. Encourage employees to talk about workplace stresses
“All too often, open communication, especially about something emotional like stress, is not easy in the workplace,” Belling says. “There’s a tremendous advantage when a company has the systems and tools to understand the stressors that their employees might be experiencing, so it is actually a win-win situation when employees can identify and reveal the triggers that are causing stress.” Through a trusted process, employees ideally are able to discuss topics of concern, including:
o If they are impacted by an organisational change process and there is no or ineffective stress management support as part of the initiative
o If they are impacted by toxic workplace relationships that are causing stress
o If the demands of their work and expectations of them are unreasonable and are impacting negatively on personal relationships and quality of home life
o If office practices such as hot-desking are creating a high stress work environment
o If there are real threats to their job security, such as being made redundant because of automation
o If they are overwhelmed, or completely bored, by the work they have to do
3. Promote and enable physical activity as part of the working day
Exercise is a highly effective strategy for stress management and Belling suggests that organisations ensure that employees are able to keep up regular exercise programmes of their choice. “When employees are under too much pressure, there’s a danger that long working hours and deadlines that are too tight disrupt the very activities and exercise routines that play such an important role in physical and emotional well-being,” she points out. Organisations can also offer on-site exercise opportunities such as lunch-time Pilates or yoga classes; or just make it possible for a stressed or overwhelmed employee to take a walk outside and restore their mental clarity or for a meeting between two people to be held on foot as a way to stimulate fresh ideas.
4. Promote mindfulness as part of the working day
“Mindfulness, which is the art of living in the present moment, has many proven benefits such as improving physical, mental and emotional health while promoting vitality and resilience,” says Belling. “Formal meditation practices are a personal choice that some may not subscribe to. Luckily there are many simple mindful techniques that draw on the body and can easily be incorporated into a working day, even while sitting at a desk. For example short breaks of even a minute or two can be taken during the workday to consciously release body tension; take a few deep and even breaths, use small stretches, adjust posture to be more comfortable and upright; or rub your hands up and down your neck or over a tense area of your body as a brief massage for the relief that these small interventions can bring. In a minute or so, a fresher, clearer, more focused headspace can emerge.
5. Promote and enable trusted relationships in the workplace
It can make a significant difference when an overwhelmed employee can talk things through with someone they trust so that they can go on to concentrate on what they need to. Understanding the importance of these interactions for employee productivity and wellbeing can make allowing for it during the workday and also promoting it at times of high stress, more of a priority. This could take the form of passing conversations between employees during the workday or over lunch or tea or making time with a trusted HR professional or external counsellor or coach. It could also be a phone call on a break to someone who will listen well and give good advice. Out of the office, when we have more time, a good, heartfelt chat can also go a long way to help us feel better about ourselves when we need a morale boost or to uplift our spirits. It can also help to clarify priorities and support our stress resilience.