Limiting workplace stress

According to a study by investigators at Harvard and Stanford, workplace stress could be costing US organizations up to $190 billion in annual health care costs. The figure may seem surprisingly high, but, as the authors explain, “the observed associations make intuitive sense: stress has both a direct effect on health and it also induces unhealthy choices and behaviors, ranging from alcohol abuse, smoking, and drug consumption to suicide.”

Health problems are not the only costly consequence that workplace stress poses to businesses. Anxious employees will naturally be more likely to miss deadlines, lose focus, and quarrel with co-workers, which is why the American Institute of Stress suggests that the total cost to US business may be as high as $300 billion a year.

Faced with such potential liabilities, organizations are taking a greater interest in providing stress management training to their employees as part of a larger program of wellness initiatives. Such programs, however, are not a cure-all for anxiety. “It’s not about eliminating stress,” explains Manendra Bhugra, CCA’s Manager of Training & Development. “It’s about helping employees to become more self-aware about how it affects them and about how they can develop coping strategies.”

Here are 5 best practice tips that can help you and your employees get the most out of your stress management efforts:

  1. Know the signs

According to Manendra Bhugra, CCA’s Manager of Learning & Development, an important component of these efforts is to help employees recognize their own red flags. Often, stress sneaks up on us unawares, so it may be useful to consult co-workers in identifying these warning signs. As stress builds, we may not notice that we pace in our office or drink extra cups of coffee, but our neighbors in the office may pick up on these “tells.”

  1. Be proactive

Once we recognize the red flags that coincide with rising stress levels, we can take steps to relieve the stress before it builds up to counterproductive levels. Frequently, there are more opportunities to take these steps than we might imagine, allowing us to deal with stress not as a marathon – which needs to be endured in long, unbroken stretches – but as short sprints that allow intermittent periods of recovery. Taking a fifteen-minute break during the afternoon to take a walk or to listen to an iPod can provide enough downtime to abate the build-up of stress. Other people may find breathing exercises to be useful de-stressors.

  1. Team up to fight stress

Although the value of particular stress management activities will vary from one person to another, Manendra observes that participating in these activities with other people can enhance their effectiveness. “It can be easier to make these activities a part of one’s daily routine when they’re a part of someone else’s routine as well. Teaming up in this way can harness peer pressure’s positive potential to help us follow through with our resolves.”

  1. Convey organizational support

The support of the organization’s leadership can be as important as the support of one’s colleagues. When CCA delivered a stress management program at a start-up technology firm where employees were working long and intense hours, employees indicated that they were much more receptive to the workshop knowing that the organization was behind it. “Employees can sometimes feel stigmatized by the need to ask for assistance in managing stress,” Manendra explains. “Knowing that the organization supports their efforts can be comforting.”

  1. Vigorously promote stress management initiatives

In order to convey its support, the organization should ensure that the program is energetically promoted through various channels such as emails and posters. Ideally, these promotions will include testimonials provided by employees who have benefitted from the initiatives, since people find the endorsements of their peers especially compelling.

Best practice tips such as these can maximize the value of stress management programs. Such programs enhance the well-being of not only employees, but the organization as well. A workforce that can confront challenges with poise and resilience will ultimately be able to contribute more to the organization and elevate its performance.