There is good stress and there is bad stress. The good kind is necessary for survival and involves the fight-or-flight response. When you see a lion stalking you through a cubicle jungle and you run into the VP’s office, shut the door and hide, that’s good stress keeping you alive. It makes you hyperaware, sends extra blood to your muscles and increases glucose levels to speed up your heart rate. When the threat is over, your body returns to its normal hormonal levels.
Unfortunately, chronic bad stress induces the same responses, but the body never gets the chance to reset itself. Living in a nearly constant state of stress causes all sorts of maladies. It causes elevated blood pressure and stress on the whole cardiovascular system. It also typically causes poor-quality sleep, digestive problems and a weak immune system.
If you think stress isn’t prevalent, you would be wrong. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Stress in America survey, “More than three-quarters of adults report physical or emotional symptoms of stress, such as headache, feeling tired or changes in sleeping habits” and “Nearly half of adults say they have laid awake at night because of stress in the prior month.”
Quantifiable information on the effects of stress can be found in multiple studies. For example, researchers at Arizona State University performed an experiment with rats. They put each one into a maze with one of three corridors blocked off. They then put healthy (unstressed) rats back through the maze at a later time with the previously blocked corridor unblocked. These rats explored the new corridor, according to their natural curiosity.
When they performed the same experiment with rats that had been stressed, the rats did not show an interest in the newly unblocked corridor. This led researchers to the conclusion that the induced stress disrupted the ability of the rats to navigate by memory. On a positive note, once the stress was removed, the previously stressed rats performed normally in the maze.
Researchers hope this research information will eventually lead to a way in which to control how stress affects human brains.
When I work with companies that determine workplace stress is affecting the quantity and quality of work performed by their employees, we begin by finding out the main source(s) of the tension. Some of them come prepared with an anonymous employee survey, which speeds up the process. Other companies, some of whose executives are in denial, insist the work environment is perfect as it is and try to reject the possibility that their workplace is causing burnout, lack of intellectual acuity and an uptick in sick days used.
A common stressor is differing expectations of productivity between upper management and the employees who actually perform the tasks. If management determines that each employee in the widget department should be able to produce 10 widgets per hour with no defects, and the actual number employees are able to produce without defects per hour is five, that is quite a disconnect and will understandably affect morale and cause negative stress in the workforce.
Another stressor I find on a frequent basis is management’s inflexibility toward the time an employee must be present at the office. If an employee is required to be at their desk from nine to five no matter what, that person is going to experience a high-stress level each time a situation occurs that causes a conflict.
For example, if their car is in the shop and they have to take alternate transportation, there may be limited options as to when they arrive at or depart from the office. What if Dad has to pick up little Jimmy from school because of a sudden illness? If work time flexibility isn’t built into the corporate structure, you may find employee retention to be a problem.
In the meantime, how can you manage negative stress in your daily life and the lives of your employees when it originates from your work environment?
I often suggest upper management should allow people to develop new skills. New skills can give them new tools to solve problems on the job, which reduces stress. A course on time management skills may help employees to prioritize their work and learn to control what they can and avoid dwelling on things they can’t control.
It is also important to give employees time to reflect on past successes. Having an employee of the month award, or some similar form of recognition, would be one way to accomplish this.
The American Psychological Association, who surveyed 3,617 adults in 2019, found that “44% of adults say they exercise or walk to manage stress and 47% say they listen to music.” Alternatively, “More than one third (37%) spend time with friends or family.” Why not create a walking club at work? Employees can be encouraged to take one of their daily breaks outdoors performing light exercise. Again, rewards presented for the walker logging the most steps per month can encourage participation.
There are various ways to combat stress in a person-by-person format. The Mayo Clinic suggests that each person make a stress inventory, writing down for one to two weeks every time they feel stressed, including a short explanation of each situation. When they finish the prescribed time period, they should assess the data that was collected. Each employee may find several commonalities as to what causes them to feel stress and how they typically react to that stress. Once they understand what drives them in those situations, they can begin to find ways to alter either the reoccurring situation or their reoccurring response to the situation.
Negative stress is not a situation that will get better when left alone. It is prevalent, and it is detrimental to the quality of life. There is no reason not to tackle it head on to improve the quality of life for yourself and your employees.
This article has previously been published on Forbes.