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How To Better Support Employees Through Stressful Times

Cat DiStasio

External Contributor - HR Expert (& Huge Geek)

3 Apr 2024

Stress has become a common theme in the workplace. According to the American Institute of Stress, more than three-quarters (83%) of US workers report suffering from work-related stress and one-quarter (25%) said their job is the number one stressor in their lives.

And stress is not exclusive to US workers. Gallup's 2023 State of the Global Workplace Report revealed that nearly half (44%) of people surveyed around the globe experience significant workplace stress on a daily basis, for the second year in a row.

High levels of stress are associated with a wide array of challenges, including mental and physical health conditions, lower employee engagement and productivity, and higher rates of turnover. While many employers have added perks and benefits to help reduce stress, such as flexible work arrangements and expanded mental healthcare coverage, there’s still room for improvement. Embracing opportunities to engage proactively with employees about managing stress – and helping them connect with the support and resources they need before they reach complete burnout – is crucial to a healthy workforce.

At the height of the pandemic, many employers were quick to highlight a variety of incremental improvements in wellness coverage, in an effort to help employees manage stress. These included providing mindfulness training, covering the cost of meditation apps, and other wellness initiatives aimed at mental health. Largely, research has demonstrated that these programs – while well-intentioned – do not tangibly improve stress levels for most employees.

So, what does work?

More flexibility

Having more control over when and where one works helps reduce stress by making it easier to balance work demands with other responsibilities in life, such as child or elder care, medical appointments, and the basic need for rest. Offering alternatives to a standard 9-to-5 in-office work shift helps employees prioritize their time and energy more effectively based on their unique needs.

More paid time off

The ability to rest and recharge is crucial for being able to manage stress when it inevitably comes along. The American Psychological Association reports that half (50%) of employees say the following three elements have a negative impact on their stress levels at work: too heavy a workload, lack of paid time off or sick leave, and commuting.

Designated paid time off for mental health

Some companies have adopted organization-wide periodic shutdowns to mitigate the negative impacts of stress in the workplace. While offering floating ‘mental health holidays’ can be helpful, that model typically comes with some pressure for employees who feel it’s challenging to disconnect while everyone else is working (and the emails and Slack messages continue to pour in). Shutting down the entire organization for one day per month or per quarter alleviates that pressure, since nobody is working that day.

More agency

The same APA study I mentioned earlier also found that nearly half of employees (48%) reported that a lack of involvement in decision-making contributes to stress in the workplace. The solution is to engage employees more – from monitoring employee sentiment more frequently to explicitly asking their input on decisions around projects, culture initiatives, and other work-related topics. This strategy combats stress, most likely, because being included in decisions helps employees feel a greater sense of purpose and belonging.  

Transparent conversations about stress and mental health

When managers are frank with employees about their challenges managing stress, employees naturally feel more comfortable expressing their feelings and asking for support when they need it. This is a key component of creating psychological safety in the workplace, which can help mitigate stress.

Best practices for communicating with employees about stress

Stress is an integral component of human life – and not all types of stress are bad. The rush that comes with working on an important or exciting project is a form of stress, for example. So it’s important that organizational leaders are not hung up on the idea of creating a ‘stress-free’ workplace. It’s not realistic in concept or in practice and, if it could even be achieved, probably wouldn’t be very good for business.

But keeping stress within manageable levels and ensuring that employees are empowered to talk about stress are not just realistic notions – they’re fast becoming accepted as table stakes for employers to provide and, as we continue operating in an era of high talent mobility, they are high priorities for job seekers and employees alike. Thus, providing resources that help employees manage stress are crucial to talent attraction and employee retention.

Proactively reduce potential stressors

Business leaders and managers should always be on the lookout for potential stressors. If a big project is coming up and your team is small, maybe you’ll need to tap in some extra support from other departments. If several employees will be out on leave at the same time, perhaps certain routine work can be delayed so the remaining employees aren’t overwhelmed. Or maybe the business has grown and it’s time to add another team member so the workload can be more evenly distributed. All of these decisions can lead to an environment where employees can more easily manage stress.

Engage with empathy

Nothing is more likely to increase stress than feeling like you’re the only one who feels it. Show employees that stress is something everyone experiences. Managers can do this by setting firm boundaries for themselves around work-life balance, as well as through conversations with their teams.

Be watchful for mental health red flags 

Oftentimes, people don’t realize how stressed they are until it’s too late. Managers and team leaders need training on the early signs of stress and overwhelm, as well as the company-provided resources to offer in support. Train leaders to use mental health checklists (like this one from OSHA) to help spot symptoms and provide support to employees before they are in crisis mode.

Addressing workplace stress for a healthier workforce

Stress in the workplace is a pervasive issue affecting employees globally, with significant implications for mental and physical health, productivity, and retention.

Many employers have implemented wellness initiatives that can be useful, but the most effective strategies for reducing stress involve offering more flexibility, ample paid time off, designated mental health days, increased agency, and fostering transparent conversations about stress.

Additionally, proactive measures such as identifying and mitigating potential stressors, empathetic engagement, and early detection of mental health red flags are essential for creating a supportive and healthy work environment.

By prioritizing these approaches, organizations can better equip their employees to manage stress and contribute to a more resilient and engaged workforce.