October 21, 2015

Help Your Employees Manage Stress — the Business Will Thank You

calm waterWe’ve written before about how stress harms workers. Routinely high levels of stress can lead to physical and mental health problems, career burnout, and chronic underperformance at work, among other things.

But employee well-being isn’t the only thing that stress can damage. High levels of stress among workers can negatively affect the overall performance of a company as well.

According to research from Towers Watson, more than half of employees who report high levels of stress say they are disengaged at work, compared to employees who report low stress levels, of which only one in ten are disengaged. Highly stressed employees take more time off, and they tend to do less work when in the office than employees with low levels of stress. U.S. companies lose a combined $300 billion dollars every year due to employee stress.

While taking this big picture approach is a useful way to recognize the threats that stress poses to a business, employers looking to combat stress and recoup their losses will need to drill down to the level of individual employees.

“The level of the individual is where [stress] is at,” says Dr. Andrew Shatté, psychologist and chief science officer at stress management solution meQuilibrium. “The stress that an organization is feeling is going to be the aggregate stress that individuals are feeling.”

According to Dr. Shatté, the key to reducing employee stress is what he calls “resilience training.”

The Benefits of Building Resilient Employees

Dr. Shatté believes that resilience should be seen as a “core competency in most organizational settings.” That is to say, resilience in the face of stress matters just as much as the other workplace skills that get most of our attention, like interpersonal skills, problem solving, and creative thinking.

“Resilience is the natural antidote to stress,” Dr. Shatté says. “If you can train employees to be resilient, you can help them become more hardy in the face of stress.”

RoomSome may wonder how we can train people to become more resilient. Isn’t that just an inborn characteristic? Some of us are resilient, and some of us aren’t — and that’s all there is to it.

Not so, according to Dr. Shatté.

“We’ve worked on breaking resilience down to its component parts — the seven critical ingredients that make up resilience,” Dr. Shatté says. “Once you start to break it down into these seven pieces, [you see] that you can train [people] to be resilient.”

The seven “critical ingredients” of resilience are as follows;

  1. The ability to control your feelings when under stress
  2. The ability to control behaviors when under stress
  3. Good problem-solving skills
  4. Belief in yourself
  5. Realistic levels of optimism
  6. Empathy and the social skills needed to create a social network that can support you during hard times
  7. The willingness and ability to take on challenges that come your way

Resilience training can be difficult to implement, especially if an organization looks to host live, in-person workshops to help employees build resilience. That’s why meQuilibrium offers an digital solution, which analyzes an employee’s stress profile and creates a customized program to help them build resilience.

Still, some employers may be hesitant to invest in resilience training and other stress management programs. They can be logistically complicated and financially costly. Furthermore, some employers may not believe it’s their job to help employees manage stress levels. Stress management, these employers believe, is for employees to figure out on their own.

To such employers, Dr. Shatté says it’s time to be selfish.

“Even if you’re not being altruistic and caring about [employee stress], you should be selfish and care about it,” Dr. Shatté says. “We’ve seen how employee resilience is predictive of an employee’s productivity, performance, engagement, and levels of absenteeism and presenteeism.”

skyIn other words: investing in resilience training can pay huge dividends. From a purely financial standpoint, it’s a great investment. Even if you don’t care much about employee well-being, you should know that building a more resilient workforce means building a healthier, more productive, more profitable company.

(And, if you don’t care much about employee well-being, you may want to rethink your priorities as a leader or manager — but that’s an argument for another time.)

A Final Note: Don’t Eradicate Stress Entirely

We’ve spent all this time talking about the dangers of stress, but we have to end on a slightly contradictory note. According to Dr. Shatté, some stress is essential for productive performance. The goal of resilience training — or any good stress management program, for that matter — isn’t to remove stress entirely from an employee’s life. Rather, the goal is to help employees operate at the level of stress that is right for them.

As Dr. Shatté explains, stress is a curve:

“If you’re at the left-hand side of the curve and you’re not experiencing enough stress, then you’re not even motivated enough to get off the couch. A little bit of stress gets our bodies ready and minds ready to deal with adversity and handle workloads.”

But, if you’re on the right-hand side of the curve, then you’re in for trouble:

“After a certain point, we start to tip into really dysfunctional stress. At this point, our stress system is gas pedal to the floor. We’re experiencing accelerated heart rates, we’re sweating, we’re dizzy, we have headaches — and bit by bit, we experience burnout.”

The key for employees — and for the employers supporting them — is to figure out what the appropriate level of stress is for themselves.

“A little bit of stress is motivating and a moderate amount keeps us with our edge, but once you tip over a certain point, you’re at risk for burnout,” Dr. Shatté say. “Where that line is will vary person to person. What might be too much stress for me might be just enough to get you going.”

Read more in Stress Management

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.