Stress Management in the Workplace

10 min. read

Stress is common and unavoidable in the workplace. How can employers reduce stress for their employees?

If you’ve ever worked in an office or corporate environment, then you probably know what it feels like to be stressed on the job. Deadlines can be thrown at you last-minute, a must-do task arrives without warning, emails stack up for each one you address, phones ring, meetings are scheduled, a coworker drops the ball on a shared assignment... the list of stressors that affect your mental health and well-being are endless. Stress management is constantly an essential skill in a highly competitive and fast-paced workplace.

What are the main causes of employee stress in an organization?

Workplace stress is on the rise over the past few decades. With increasing pressure to perform, high workload, toxic work environments, and the demands of advanced technology and job insecurity, these have all led to highest ever stress levels in the workplace.

According to research, the top causes of work stress are Job Insecurity, High Workload, Lack of Training and Resources, Lack of Control Over Work Activities, and Managerial Styles. There are obviously many more, but those 5 things top the list.

Other noteworthy causes of stress at work are Bullying or Harassment, Prejudice or Bias in the Workplace, Work-Life Balance, Conflict With CoWorkers or Managers, and Poor Communication.

Feeling out of control or even directionless, having guilt over procrastination or failing to keep commitments, making more commitments than you have time to keep, sudden change, uncertainty, and having high expectations of self can all contribute to job stress.

What are the effects of a stressful working environment?

In response to ongoing daily stresses, your body automatically increases blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and blood flow to your muscles. This physiological response is intended to help you react swiftly and effectively to any high-pressure situation, but a prolonged exposure can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health.

When you are constantly reacting to stressful situations, without making physical, mental, and emotional adjustments to counteract their effect, you can experience burnout symptoms that can damage your health and well-being.

Too much stress can cause minor issues such as sleep loss, irritability, backaches, or headaches, and can also contribute to potentially life-threatening diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Not only that, but something that is of great interest to management is that job performance suffers greatly under periods of stress without managing it.

As an aside, it is worth noting that women in the workforce have borne the brunt of stress and burn out in the workplace historically. But in the past eighteen months, lockdowns and school closures put an extra burden on working women, as they had to deal with childcare and education on top of keeping up with their workload.

While the work/life/family balance is no new thing for women, the pandemic has taken it to new heights. A recent LinkedIn Survey shows that 74 percent of women feel stressed for work-related reasons. Only 61 percent of men polled felt the same way.

Benefits of employee stress management in the workplace

Managing employee stress has some obvious benefits like increasing job productivity and performance, but it also has some deeper and more long term benefits as well. Stress-relieving activities at work can go a long way to not only reducing levels of stress, but also creating a positive and enjoyable workplace culture too.

Physical well-being

When you manage stress effectively, you start to see a host of physical health benefits like better sleep, fewer health problems, better immune system, lower blood pressure, etc. These all add up to a healthier workforce with less absenteeism and a more productive, effective staff.

Job Performance

A less stressful workspace invites more productive employees and creative solutions to every day problems. "Don't sweat the small stuff" doesn't always work. According to the American Psychological Association, your work setting creates physical stress because of noise, lack of privacy, poor lighting, poor ventilation, poor temperature control, or inadequate sanitary facilities. Settings where there is organizational confusion or an overly authoritarian, laissez-faire or crisis-centered managerial style are all psychologically stressful. When managed well, attention is no longer fixated on these issues and employees can get to work without being distracted by the "small stuff" and job performance and job satisfaction naturally rises.

Company Culture

When you have a company culture that encourages stress-relieving activities, and takes care of the issues that contribute to stressful environments in the workplace, then your employees are happier, healthier and morale is naturally going to become buoyant. "Fun" becomes a way of describing your workplace. "Friends" becomes a way of describing coworkers. All of this adds up to better employee retention, higher profits, more pleasurable experience for the professionals in your ranks, etc. There really is no down side to it.

Basic strategies for managing stress in the workplace

Now that we understand the causes and effects of stress, let's examine some stress management strategies in the workplace and some ways to relieve stress from the workday.

1. Preventive measures

When crafting stress management programs, it is important to realize that preventive measures are just as vital to handle stress once it rears its ugly head. This would include proactive solutions such as Conflict Management & Resolution programs that can effectively eliminate stressors on the spot, avoiding the festering of grievances among employees. It would also include activities which promote employee wellness.

As an example, if your office space has the square footage, you could include a gym or fitness program, or a yoga room for relaxation techniques, or even a game room perhaps. Nutritional upgrades to the common food stocks in the office are another way to promote employee health and well-being. It can't be understated how important healthy nutrition is, especially when you look at how poor eating habits can contribute to stress in someone's daily routine. Training and workshops to promote coping skills and self-management of stress are also in this category.

2. Clarity in communication

One of the major complaints of employees experiencing stress in the workplace is that job requirements are unclear. This is a factor known to contribute to job burnout -- if you don’t know exactly what is expected of you, or if the requirements for your role keep changing with little notice, you might understandably become extremely stressed.

Job descriptions should be clear and concise, outlining the exact metrics by which an employee can measure their own performance. If an employee never knows if what they are doing is enough, confusion can set in and stress can take over. Clear expectations and requirements of the job can greatly relieve stress.

3. Culture of anti-conflict

Interpersonal conflict can take an enormous toll on your physical and emotional health. Conflict among co-workers can be difficult to eliminate entirely, but it’s a good idea to encourage a culture of anti-conflict. That's not to say that you should avoid conflict by being meek and submissive, but rather you tackle it head on and resolve it swiftly and appropriately so that it doesn't stew and create long-term problems in the workplace.

If a company made it a habit to not gossip, or steer away from religion and politics being discussed, and definitely steer clear of "naughty" office humor, you might find the temperature of the workspace changes for the better.

It's unreasonable to expect everyone to get on with everyone in an office setting, but it is well within reason to ask that people treat one another with decency and respect. When possible, try to avoid people who don’t work well with others. You don't have to be besties with everyone in the company, but you also don't have to make enemies unnecessarily.

4. Time management

Encouraging good time management can go a long way to preventing stress. This will not only result in better, more productive use of time by employees, but also will have the knock-on effect of better job performance, higher job satisfaction, and a healthier bottom line for the company as a whole.

Management can help in this regard too, by not demanding unreasonable long hours from their employees. Take a look at what's happening with the IATSE strike currently. IATSE stands for International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees. It's a labor union that represents 150,000 workers across the entertainment industry. Film crews have been over stressed and under-appreciated for a long time and they've had enough, to the point where the union is looking to go on a strike which could cripple Hollywood. Their demands are quite simple. Fair wages, reasonable work schedule with enough turnaround time in between days.

It's almost unthinkable in corporate America to not provide employees with regular meal breaks and weekends off, but that's not always the case in the entertainment industry. Good time management reduces the need for overtime and provides for a healthy workplace with less stress.

5. One thing at a time

Multitasking was once lauded as a brilliant way to maximize one’s time and get more done in a day. But not everyone's problem-solving brains operate that way, and people quickly realize that if they have a phone to their ear and are making calculations at the same time, their speed and accuracy (not to mention sanity) can suffer.

There is a definite and observable "frazzled" phenomenon that comes from splitting your focus and that can contribute to stress levels. Think of it this way. Imagine a receptionist trying to deal with twenty calls coming in all at once. Or a waiter with ten tables all demanding his attention at the same time. One might be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed in this situation and more than likely a little confused at all the random motion suddenly surrounding them.

Solution: Pick one thing and deal with it. It doesn't even need to be any particular thing. The receptionist can just pick one call to take. And the next and the next and so on, until the situation seems more manageable. Perfectionism has no place in this strategy. It's not about. doing it "right", it's about doing something as opposed to doing nothing. This applies to almost any high-stress situation where a lot is demanded of someone. Multiple things are competing for attention and requiring handling simultaneously and this can result in a stacking up on incomplete actions which will ultimately weigh heavily on a person. So the trick is to do something - anything - and get it completed. Then move on to the next and so on down the line.

Key takeaways

While stress at work is unavoidable in most cases, a low-stress job is hard (if not impossible) to find. A better approach is to adopt effective coping strategies to lower stress at your workplace. Stress management and prevention techniques are essential to overcome stress in the workaday world.