Why Is It Important for Organizations to Address Workplace Stress Proactively?

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Stress. The uncomfortable, physiological reaction to life's difficulties that we all come face-to-face with over the course of our lives. But, while stress is, by definition, a fight or flight response designed to protect us from a perceived threat, problematic levels of stress are on the rise in America, producing the opposite effect that these biological systems were intended for.

Diagnosing Society’s Stress Symptoms 

It isn’t hard to pinpoint some of the driving forces behind this recent surge. The technological boom of the 21st Century has catapulted us into a constant state of connection, limiting our ability to bookend the various facets of our lives. This need to be available to everyone at any time has created a foreign, nebulous environment that we’re trying desperately to navigate. Work bleeds into our time at home with our families, personal time becomes virtually non-existent when we are reachable at any moment of the day and night. Even attempts to set boundaries, or completely disconnect, often come with their own set of panicked stress responses, such as, “What am I missing?” or “What if there is an emergency?”

Perhaps the greatest instigator of stress in recent times stemmed from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaguing the entire planet, the upheaval to our daily lives, lockdowns, and the economic downfall that left many people displaced, out of work, and struggling to make ends meet, saw global levels of anxiety and depression climb by more than 25% during 2020, according to a World Health Organization study.

The Impact on Industries 

The pandemic created major challenges in nursing and other healthcare professions,  it tested the limits of our already strained infrastructure, and it reminded us just how valuable our frontline workers and responders were; laying life and limb on the line to keep the rest of us safe.

For those remote workers, it was balancing the existing demands of our job with the new responsibilities we faced, such as home-schooling children, taking care of parents, and managing household chores, all the while facing the bleak unknown of what was to come. It’s no wonder that heightened levels of stress and anxiety have become a mainstay in our day-to-day lives. 

Almost three years on, and even as we creep back into a semi-state of ‘normalcy,’ it may become harder to recognize the toll these impacts have on us both mentally and physically — especially when they are delivered in daily micro-doses – but the long-term health implications of pervasive stress, especially after sustained periods of trauma, can have troubling consequences.

What’s the Solution to Stress? 

So how do we reduce stress levels in this hyper-connective, constantly changing world?

One of the most logical places to start seems to be the workplace. After all, most of us will spend a third of our lives (whether we like it or not) at our respective places of business.

A recent study found that job stress in America costs companies an estimated $300 billion per year in health care costs, absenteeism, and performance deficiencies. In addition to this, the report also found that 40% of worker turnover in the US is directly linked to stress. 

With numbers like these, it seems like a no-brainer for organizations to start factoring mental health and stress management into their core workplace structures. That said, it’s the age-old discussion that seems to pit common sense against capitalism every day in this country: Do we invest more resources in treating illness or do we invest more in preventative measures? Ensuring people don’t get sick in the first place rather than simply treating them when they do?

Policies & Protection 

Over the last two decades, many European countries have proposed “right to disconnect” legislation, effectively banning workers from engaging in work-related communications during non-working hours to prioritize family and leisure time and combat stress levels.

While such government-mandated policies do not yet exist here in the US, our history of burnout culture is becoming less sustainable and more prevalent than ever, meaning organizations should be implementing their own internal policies that encourage a complete level of disconnect once the working day is done. 

Offering mental health days to employees and not just “sick days,” tells workers grappling with bouts of stress that it is perfectly healthy to speak up and say, “I am not OK.” Normalizing this in the workplace breaks down the stigmas that have historically beset mental health, and promotes a more open dialogue, and better workplace culture.

In the digital age, the employer trend of expecting more-for-less, might make the margins look pretty and boost bottom lines, but the reality is, that this approach comes with a redacted price tag, affecting both business and employee. Organizations need to crunch the numbers and look closely at what staff turnover, rehiring, and retraining actually cost the business. Better yet, businesses should simply look at their employees and see them for the people, and not just the resources, that they are; valuable contributors to the success of an organization, but whose lives cannot possibly revolve around it 24/7. 

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I'm Alice and I live with a dizzying assortment of invisible disabilities, including ADHD and fibromyalgia. I write to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental and chronic illnesses of all kinds. 

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