Stress: The Badge of Honor That’s Harming Your Staff

October 15, 2015

This article was originally published in Talent Zoo.

If you were to ask employees anywhere on the globe whether or not they enjoy being stressed, chances are pretty good you would get a hard “no” across the board. Even if they were to ignore the various studies pointing to the negative effects of stress on the body, you could still probably boil most people’s answers down to a simple “stress sucks.”

Despite this, in many workplaces — especially ones where competition is held in high regard — stress is often worn like a badge of honor. Rather than something to avoid, being stressed and overworked is equated with winning the rat race. If you’re working too hard, it means you’re being given more responsibility, you’re trusted with a heavier workload, and your job is secure, right?

Nobody likes stress, but nobody wants to quit working so hard, either. Why give someone else the opportunity to bypass you? Many corporate leaders encourage a high-stress work environment because it seems to drive employees to work longer hours and have higher standards for excellence when it comes to finishing the job. What harm could it do?

Well, as it turns out, quite a bit — and not just on a personal level, either.

Analysts from Fairleigh Dickinson University have estimated $200 million per year is lost by employers in the U.S. due to the effects of workplace stress, and 60 percent of lost workdays can be linked to stress. According to research from Towers Watson, when days taken off work increase, productivity — even among those still working in an understaffed office — demonstrably decreases.

In the face of research like this, it’s easy to see that stress isn’t just bad for people’s well-being; it’s bad for business, and it needs to be addressed head-on.

Fighting the Stress Epidemic

Simply cutting the number of hours worked each week won’t eradicate the damaging levels of stress in the workplace — and, in many cases, that’s not the issue. Having the right perception of stress is the first step. Conduct a survey to determine who’s stressed and who understands that it’s a bad thing. Once you find out who’s stressed, create a wellness program that’s grounded in evidence. There are a lot of stress reduction ideas out there, but only a few behavioral interventions and stress techniques are clinically proven to work.

Here are five stress reduction techniques that you can integrate into your wellness program:

1. Eat whole foods.
In a 2006 American Psychological Association survey, almost 31 percent of women and 19 percent of men said they turn to comfort food when they’re stressed. But consuming simple carbs like ice cream and cake elevates blood sugar and insulin, which could, over time, cause insulin insensitivity and even diabetes.

Researchers at Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center found that the healthiest diets emphasize eating whole grains, healthy proteins and fats, and fresh veggies. Consuming complex carbs provides a stable release of sugar and induces the brain to release more serotonin, a calming chemical.

2. Find outlets for your feelings. 
Of course, stress will never go away completely, which is why finding ways to cope is as important as finding ways to reduce it. It can be tempting to ignore or bury the anxiety, negative thoughts, and self-doubts that often lead to chronic stress, but this may be the single greatest reason stress persists. Though it may sound fuzzy, taking advantage of journaling, genuine friendships, or therapy to express stress-related feelings is proven by decades of research to reduce that stress dramatically.

3. Get moving. 
The physical advantages of exercise are well-established, but physical activity is also fundamental to mental health and stress reduction. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise can diminish fatigue, increase attentiveness, and heighten overall cognitive function. You and your employees don’t have to run marathons or buy top-of-the-line gym memberships to reap the rewards. Basic movement will do the trick — even a few minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate those positive anti-anxiety effects.

4. Cultivate a network of support. 
You don’t have to go it alone. Find people you can confide in, and share your troubles with them; in return, you can be someone else’s confidant. An understanding ear can do wonders for relieving stress.

One study at the University of California, San Francisco found preliminary evidence that if people have quality social support in their lives, they may literally heal and repair their cells. It’s not exactly that direct — your best friend can’t fix your cells like a doctor — but strong social support seems to trigger your body to release an important healing enzyme, decreasing the impact of unhealthy stressors.

5. Practice mindfulness. 
At its core, mindfulness is simply about taking a moment to put down the clutter in your life and be present. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing are all excellent methods of putting your stress in perspective. You can also try various structured programs that promote mindfulness and have been shown to reduce stress. For example, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which was originally used to help those with chronic pain, can help you take control of not only your stress, but also your life.

Stress isn’t a badge of honor, and treating it as such is not only harmful to people, it’s also harmful to the companies they work for. It’s time to tackle workplace stress. By centering your wellness efforts on clinically proven stress techniques, you’re well on your way to succeeding.

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