And yet, this reluctance to admit to stress doesn’t make the issue any less of a threat – or a reality. Most human resource professionals could write a best-selling memoir documenting their challenges with absent employees, low productivity and engagement levels, all of which can be symptomatic of prolonged, work-related stress.
”The pressure can be too much for some and can lead to poor mental health,” says Glenn Riseley, founder and president of the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC). “It’s becoming more obvious to professionals and HR heads that identifying these employees and proving them with the tools they need to cope is of the utmost importance.”
Riseley’s comments come as the GCC’s research body, GCC Insights, releases a report on the “bottom line” effects of stress. Using survey data from 160,000 employees who took part in the GCC’s 100-day health program, the report highlighted the impact of stress on businesses, and conclusively shows that employees reporting higher stress are less productive than their less-stressed colleagues.
Dr. Nita Chhinzer, with the department of management at the University of Guelph, says the trends identified in the report have an impact in Canada as well:
- The overall economic impact of work-related mental health problems is estimated to be $51 billion annually.
- Lost productivity at work due to health-related issues costs the average Canadian organization $10 million per year.
- Mental health issues are also the leading cause of both short-and long-term disability claims.
- Surveys of Canadian executives show that two-thirds of companies underestimate the prevalence of mental illness in the workplace.
- Only 13 per cent of senior executives have a strong awareness of the impact of mental health on their workplaces.
The stress response
Senior executives who are aware of the impact of mental health in their organizations are in a frustrating position. They might have good intentions but won’t necessarily know where to start making positive changes or with who.
It helps to define exactly what exactly organizations are – and are not – dealing with. “It’s important to recognise the difference between ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’,” says Dr. David Batman, GCC’s chief medical officer. “Most employees need a certain amount of challenge and pressure in their work. It keeps them motivated, gives them ambition, and drives productivity. Stress occurs when the perceived pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope.”
The key word here is perceived. Stress is a response, not a condition, and is as much based on individual, psychological perceptions of a situation as it is on the biological fight or flight response.
Both Dr. Batman and Dr. Chhinzer agree that trained, aware managers who support and monitor their employees’ performance are critical in minimizing the damage of workplace stress.
“Employees will exhibit sleep disturbances, fatigue, anxiety, decreased appetite, loss of concentration and memory,” Dr. Batman says. “These symptoms often go unrecognised by the individual, who feels guilty at their inability to cope, and it’s only when workplace issues arise that actions are often taken.”
Workplace stress is often an employee’s response to their working environment and practices, and the good news is that HR can help with both of those things. An organization’s main objective should be to help employees develop awareness and resilience so they’re better able to respond positively to the demands of their jobs.
The goal should not be to eradicate stress altogether because no one – not even a medical professional – can eliminate stress on an employee’s behalf.
“Resilience helps employees at all levels to thrive under pressure,” Dr. Batman says. “They bounce back stronger following adversity and maintain high levels of sustained performance over longer periods of time.”
This sounds great for the bottom line, so how can you help build resilience in your workforce? Well, employees respond positively to pressure and manage their stress levels when they are physically well, rested, and supported by a culture prioritising health, so the most important thing is making them aware of their physical and mental well-being during working hours.
This could be as simple as encouraging employees to actually eat lunch away from their desk for once. It could be implementing walking meetings for those head-to-heads that run long and leave people slumped in their seats. It could even be removing the expectation to answer out-of-hours emails and encouraging employees to periodically check out of their churning inbox – arguably one of the most insidious stressors of working life.
Healthy body, healthy mind
Ultimately, you make employees more resilient by making them healthier and the primary way to do this is to get them moving. Data from the latest GCC Insights report conclusively proved that increased physical activity made the most difference to employees’ reported stress levels. Those taking 15,000 steps each day changed their perception of stress one whole category, from “moderately stressed” to “not at all stressed” in the best instances.
The reason for the difference is as simple as it is effective: in order for an employee to take up to 15,000 steps, it’s estimated that they have to move for over an hour each day. If they’re moving, they have time to reset, solve problems, and put all the things that can seem overwhelming in perspective.
It’s also worth remembering that an indirect, “healthy body, healthy mind” approach to stress and mental health might help with the high attrition rates of more traditional organizational remedies like employee assistance programs or one-on-one counselling.
These can and should work as part of an overarching strategy, but it’s important to consider the bigger picture: do employees who admit to feeling stressed worry about damaging career opportunities? Or a loss of respect? Or being the subject of gossip from peers?
The answer, according to Dr. Batman, is a resounding yes. “People with mental health problems say that the social stigma and the discrimination they experience, both at work and home, can make their difficulties worse.”
As a final thought, he contrasts this with the way colleagues suffering from cancer, heart disease or diabetes can openly talk about their health challenge without the fear of prejudice of judgement. Mental health should be the same way, and forward thinking HR professionals have a starring role to play in starting that critically important conversation.