If your employees were asked to describe your workplace in one word, what would that be? Stimulating? Innovative? Convivial? How about stressful?
Unfortunately, this worrying adjective was chosen by 42% of the 700 UAE workers questioned in 2016 for a global report by US company Steelcase. This compared poorly with the global average of 35%, and fared better than only South Africa, at 48%.
What concerns me about this result is that it suggests workplace stress plays a regular role rather than a short-term ‘deadline day’ one. Already workers may be undergoing stress in other areas of their lives –perhaps due to financial, relationship or health issues– only to then be faced with a host of demands at work: unrealistic deadlines, unmanageable workloads, job insecurity and long hours. And as these stressors become the norm, research shows they negatively impact long-term health and productivity.
As employers, we should be aiming to reduce stress for the sake of our workers’ health– and ultimately the health of our businesses. A stressed workforce takes more sick days and has lower productivity– costly both in terms of profit and health insurance premiums. So, here’s why tackling workplace stress makes good business sense, plus some of the best evidence-based solutions.
How stress affects employees’ health
When we’re stressed, the hormone cortisol is released, triggering a cascade of changes in the nervous, cardiovascular, and immune systems. This triggers the body to divert energy to where it’s needed most, the ‘battle stations’, while it down-regulates less critical activities such as digestion. It’s a good short-term strategy, but problems occur when stress becomes long-term.
Chronic stress raises blood pressure, over time increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Added to that, it can encourage unhealthy behaviour such as smoking, drinking, and poor diet, compounding the risk of serious conditions. Not surprisingly, a 2015 joint review by University College London (UCL) and Harvard University found that job strain, working long hours, and job insecurity were all associated with a raised risk of coronary heart disease.
Linked to this is growing evidence that long-term stress makes people prone to weight gain. Earlier this year, researchers from UCL published a study where they took a lock of hair, representing approximately two months’ worth of growth, from participants aged 54 or older. Those with higher levels of cortisol in their hair tended to have a higher weight in relation to height and a larger waist circumference.
It leads to minor ills, too. Back in 1998, researchers administered nasal drops containing the common cold virus to 276 volunteers to see if stress made people more susceptible to illness. The results, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, showed that work-related stress, lasting longer than one month, tripled the risk of catching a cold, and increased it five-fold after three months.
There’s further evidence that chronic stress triggers gut problems, asthma symptoms, and headaches, while also taking its toll emotionally. In 2011, the American Psychological Association released results from its stress survey. When asked what symptoms the 1,200 participants had experienced in the past month as a result of stress, 42% reported feeling irritable or angry, 39% anxious or nervous, 37% depressed or sad, while 35% lacked motivation.
Impact on work performance
Obviously, none of this is good news for the health of employees– and therefore the health of the business. The Global Benefit Attitudes Survey is published yearly by Willis Towers Watson and interviews over 20,000 employees from around the world. The 2015/2016 report revealed a relationship between stress and work performance. Globally, the more stressed an employee was, the more days they missed from work. Low levels of stress led to an average 2.6 days absent per year, with high stress this rose to 4.1 days.
So, let’s look at some evidence-based approaches to making employees happier and healthier.
1. Pinpoint the causes Take the time to find out exactly what’s causing stress in your company, so you can target specific problems, such as long hours or unmanageable deadlines, effectively. The Willis Towers Watson 2015/16 Staying@Work Survey across 34 markets revealed a discrepancy between what employees and employers in EMEA countries (Europe, Middle East and Africa) believed were the primary causes of work-related stress. Employers presumed it to be poor work-life balance and technology infiltrating home life, but employees cited inadequate staffing and low pay. An anonymous survey is probably the best way to encourage staff to be candid.
2. Implement a health and productivity program In the Staying@Work Survey, stress and resilience management was one of the most popular wellness programmes offered by 47% of employers in EMEA countries. There is good reason for this; we’ve known for a while that these programmes can be effective. In 2001, the American Journal of Public Health published a meta-analysis of 48 separate studies on occupational stress interventions. They found that programmes focusing on the individual were particularly effective. Examples of these include cognitive behavioural therapy, which teaches people to look at challenges in different ways, as well as developing relaxation techniques and multimodal interventions (an approach to therapy) that emphasise the need for both passive and active coping strategies.
3. Make use of technology Another noticeable result from the Staying@Work Survey was that web- or mobile-based platforms were not popular. Just 18% of employers offered lifestyle behaviour coaching in this way. However, recent research indicates the need to reassess this. In 2016, researchers from Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark published results from a randomised controlled trial into the effectiveness of web- and mobile-based stress management training for 264 employees. The programme consisted of seven sessions and text-message reminders. Six and 12 months after completing the programme, those who received the web-based intervention perceived their stress levels to be significantly lower than those who hadn’t undergone the programme.
4. Consider the environment In 2008 a literature review, published in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour, focused on the relationship between indoor work environments and stress. The authors highlighted that individuals are least stressed when they have some control of noise and lighting levels, that access to daylight can have direct psychological benefits, and concentration can be improved with a comfortable ambient temperature. A separate study in 2013 in the Journal Landscape and Urban Planning revealed that men with access to green space displayed significantly lower levels of stress and an improved attitude to their workplace than those without. Ultimately, our working environment can be designed to limit unnecessary stress. Options could include chill-out rooms for relaxing or quiet work, rooftop gardens, and hot-desking so people can move to an area that best suits them.
5. Offer flexi-time or working from home Technological improvements make it increasingly possible for employers to work away from the office and many would appreciate it too. A 2013 YouGov poll found that 78% of UAE employees would feel less stressed and more productive if given the freedom to work flexibly. Yet, the same survey revealed that just 23% of businesses were even open to the idea.
A healthy future
In the long run, everyone loses out from a stressful working environment and the best way to reduce it is to address its causes. It’s true that pressure in the workplace is sometimes unavoidable –and can actually be motivating in the right dose– but it shouldn’t become chronic and unmanageable. As the World Health Organization (WHO) points out: "A healthy job is likely to be one where the pressures on employees are appropriate in relation to their abilities and resources, to the amount of control they have over their work, and to the support they receive from people who matter to them."