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How to Curb the Stress Factor at Your Startup

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If you're a business manager or executive, you've probably thought about how stress manifests itself at your workplace and hurts your business: absenteeism, tension at the conference table and poor morale. This is especially the case if your company is a startup. But there are other, more subtle ways that stress can sabotage your team's performance.

For starters, think about the way the brain responds to stress. The instant you feel confronted, your brain triggers a cascade of hormones that send your body into survival mode. Your body pulls blood from the extremities and moves it to your core to support the requirements of a more rapidly beating heart. Your pupils dilate to better assess the physical environment for escape routes, and your brain deactivates its higher-functioning centers in order to devote all its resources to the body's base needs. The result? Impaired decision-making.

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Stress can also quickly add to your health-care costs. Our ancestors counted on the "fight or flight" response to move fast when faced with physical danger. This response wasn't designed to fire repeatedly day after day, however, and it will eventually take a toll on the body. In fact, stress costs businesses hundreds of billions of dollars every year through effects like headaches, fatigue and on-the-job injuries, as well as serious conditions like heart disease, chronic insomnia and substance abuse.

And a high-stress environment may also hurt your company's ability to attract and retain talent. While it's impossible to remove all the stressors from a startup environment, you can make small changes at your workplace that will make a big difference. Here are five strategies managers can employ to reduce workplace stress and foster a more productive environment:

1. Work toward a higher-level goal. Studies repeatedly show that money is not a prime motivator for employees engaged in work above the level of manual labor. Staffers who feel their company is "all about the money" may struggle with motivation issues and even have feelings of low self-worth, resulting in stress and reduced productivity. After all, why work hard on "meaningless" tasks?

Organizations that require intellectual and creative contributions from staff members can combat this by redefining the corporate mission to make it clear that each person's contribution serves a larger purpose, This way employees can feel they're contributing to a higher-level goal.

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2. Create a clear organizational structure founded on employee empowerment. Research shows that employees experience stress when they feel powerless or perceive their role as ambiguous. So one strategy for dealing with stress on a structural level is to create an organization that empowers employees within well-defined roles.

Think about ways you can modify your department's or work group's structure to give your team more autonomy and to be sure that employees understand how their role fits into the larger organizational structure. Create more explicit guidelines about exactly who has the ultimate decision-making authority for different types of activities; reduce ambiguity around who needs to be involved in an approval process.

3. Examine your compensation structure. A recent study published in the journal Human Resource Management Review concluded performance-enhancing compensation practices may temporarily increase productivity, but they may also increase bullying among team members. If you pay people for performance, keep a close eye on the behaviors this kind of structure motivates and make sure the setup isn't adding to employees' stress.

You might ask yourself, Are members of my team more or less likely to help colleagues when their compensation is based on individual performance? Paying people based on individual performance can often foster unhealthy competition and reduce cooperation, resulting in a less supportive environment. Consider incentivizing teams (instead of individuals) to encourage collaboration, while recognizing leadership and individual performance with nonfinancial perks.

4. Support programs that nurture employees. Feeling undervalued can lead to workplace stress because all human beings need validation of their contributions and competence to develop healthy self-esteem. Acknowledge the value of individuals and nurture your employees by investing in their professional and personal development. Other ways to show caring include offering after-hours social events or supporting employees' participation in charitable events.

5. Make workplace wellness a priority. Poor health adds to stress. Employees' missing work or feeling sick makes it harder for them to get things done, and the more the workload piles up, the more stressful the job becomes. This is why it's important for companies to make workplace wellness a priority.

Think about adding wellness programs that focus on stress reduction. Offer your staff programs with instruction in yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices. Give them workday time to learn tools to release stress in small increments multiple times a day. Many two-minute stress relievers -- such as soft-belly breathing, healthy self-talk practices and progressive muscle relaxation -- can have a huge impact on stress reduction.

Something as minor as a mounting stack of paperwork or an imminent deadline can cause an adrenalin rush and shut down the brain functions required for optimal decision-making. By working to lower the stress level in your office, you can make a big difference in your employees' health, productivity and performance.

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