The impact of stress on corporations (and what to do about it)

Mar 17, 2022

One can no longer deny that stress in the workplace is it’s own epidemic.

 

In fact, 96% of the American workforce report experiencing stress in the workplace and research from the CDC shows that 25% of all employees state that their work is the number one source of stress in their life. On top of that, 63% of Americans are ready to quit their job due to the stress it causes.

 

The problem is, we weren’t designed for modern day stress. 

 

Our stress response was designed to help us run away from a bear and get us to safety. However, our body doesn’t know the difference between running away from a bear and negotiating a new client contract, working our way through a difficult problem, or managing challenging interpersonal relationships between colleagues and departments. I won’t go into too much detail, but stress essentially turns off our ability to think critically, problem solve, and process higher levels of thinking which then makes it harder for your employees to do their best work and further your organization’s mission.

 

Now, what does this mean in a practical sense i.e. your organization’s bottom line?

 

The symptoms of increased workplace stress and what they mean for you

 

There are many ways that increased stress in the workplace manifests itself in your employees, and all of which cost you money including:

  • Lower productivity and repeat conversations due to poor communication
  • High staff turnover due to low job satisfaction which costs you in their decreased productivity, the recruitment efforts required to find their replacement, and the training costs for the new employee
  • Higher absenteeism due to stress related illness and burnout

 

The great news is that there are a lot of different strategies you can implement in your organization to improve the wellbeing of your employees, boost their productivity, and improve workplace culture.

#1 - Review and strengthen communication policies and practices

 

Company culture and employee retention don’t stand a chance if your employees either (a) don’t feel safe talking to the leadership team, or (b) feel that it’s ‘pointless’ to bring up their concerns because ‘nothing will be done about it’. Not only does this lead to gossip and toxicity in the workplace, it increases stress of the employees and decreases productivity and innovation. 

 

Foster the behavior that you want to continue. Show your employees that are assertive enough to bring sources of stress and dissonance to your attention that you hear them, understand their concern, and will clearly communicate a plan to address it in a timely manner. Your leadership team’s ability to do this requires them to have awareness of their own intrinsic biases, and access to their emotional intelligence (both of which are included in my CLEAR Career and Corporate Programs).

#2 - Teach your employees and leadership team how to deactivate their stress response to regain access to their higher-level thinking abilities

 

In the age of McMindfulness and the cultural appropriation of Buddhist culture, I’m not going to be talking about some ‘zen’ practices that your organization needs to adopt. Instead, I want to share the research around breathwork.

 

Our stress response is like a switch. It’s either on and activated (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) or deactivated (rest and digest). Below is a chart that compares some of what’s happening in your body in each of these states:

 

Notice that when your stress response is turned on your breathing is fast, and when your stress switch is turned off your breathing is slow and deep. This is the key that unlocks our potential to control our stress response.

 

In his book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” James Nestor explores the evidence around breath control and its effect on our mental health and physical wellbeing. There are many techniques we can use to turn off our stress response. Box breathing is one of the most well known techniques to achieve this and it is often used in stressful hospital environments such as the emergency room and intensive care units as well as in the military.

 

It is important to note, however, that this breathing strategy only addresses the symptom of the increased workplace stress, not the cause.

 

#3 - Strengthen your leadership’s team ability to address the stressors at their source

In my article, The Case for Women Leaders, I talk about the strengths that women and other marginalized groups have that can positively impact the overall flow and performance of any organization. By diversifying your leadership team, you improve its ability to address the systemic causes of stress within your organization and come up with creative solutions to increase employee job satisfaction and thus improve retention rates and productivity. As with so many things, proactive responses are far more beneficial than reactive responses. 

 

Over the past 15 years as a leadership coach, I’ve noticed that there are five characteristics of a proactive leader that make them successful:

  1. Clarity on their ability to influence their team to achieve the company’s mission and goals
  2. Their willingness to learn and examine the biases and systems that may be sabotaging the efforts of the team
  3. The leader’s ability to delegate and utilize the team’s skills and strengths
  4. Self-awareness, and
  5. A growth mindset that can meet challenges and obstacles with confidence knowing that they and their team will be able to come up with a solution

 

All of these characteristics require a leader’s ability to manage and control their stress to maintain access to their higher-level thinking capabilities. 

 

Don’t allow your company to become a victim of “The Great Resignation” and share these strategies with your leadership team. You may be surprised with the innovation that will come from it as well as the shift in your company culture.

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