Random cold sweats.
Mini heart attacks every time the phone rings.
A hesitation to even begin tackling a hard project.
An unwillingness to accept roles in anything new or challenging.
Those are just a few of the ways stress manifests itself in your office.
And if you're looking for the biggest threat to employee engagement, don't bother with your competitors, or budgets, or productivity.
A recent Willis Towers Watson survey revealed stress as the top workforce risk, outpacing obesity and even tobacco use.
Stressed employees are less likely to be engaged, more likely to leave, more likely to be distracted from their jobs, more likely to clash with their managers, and more likely to stir up drama.
Whether your workplace is a significant source of that stress or not, it's impacting the performances of the people within. To maintain a healthy, productive balance in the office, you're going to have to find ways to help people manage it.
Where does stress come from?
Before you can help manage stress in your office, it's important to understand where it comes from.
Some will come from outside your office. As much as 75% of the US population is worried about their finances (a number that's closer to 95%, most likely). Or it could be family issues, like a struggling marriage or caring for aging parents.
17 percent of the workforce at any given time is providing care for an aging person and about half of them also have children under 18 at home.
Lurking inside your office is a whole other set of stress factors. 80% of employees are stressed out by work.
According to the Willis Towers Watson survey, employees' top three sources of workplace stress are: lack of support/inadequate staffing, low pay or low increases in pay, and unclear job expectations.
Sounds about right.
But when asked to name their employees' top sources of stress, the employers' top three were a bit different.
They guessed lack of work/life balance to be number one, inadequate staffing two (they got that one right), then technologies that expand availability outside work hours like notebooks and mobile devices.
The final criteria was the lowest ranked by the employees.
It's probably fair to say there's a disconnect in most offices about stress. But there's absolutely a connection. Employees feel like they're being asked to do too much, and/or aren't clear of what success looks like, leading to long hours and worries that spill over into the rest of their lives.
What can you do about it?
- Open Doors
It's important for employees to know they can talk to HR and their managers honestly. You're not a psychologist, nor should you pretend to be. But you and your managers are, however, tasked with cultivating engagement and productivity from people. Make sure your office, and the offices of managers, are open for honest, frank conversations. If you don't know the problem, you can't fix it.
- Be Flexible
If an employee's stress comes from outside the office, you might be able to help them by offering flexible hours or the ability to work from home on occasion. If workloads are too heavy, consider using temporary staffing or freelance help on short-term projects as appropriate.
- Offer a Safe Place
This one has a couple meanings. On one hand, your employees should know that they’re physically protected in your office. On the other, making your office a safe place can also mean offering stress-reducing resources such as quiet rooms or even guided meditation classes. Either way, the outside world is kept outside.
Employees should feel comfortable in your office, and know that for the time they're there, they'll be able to get their work done in the best, most focused atmosphere possible.
- Be Clear About Expectations
Remember this (and lack of support staff) was the top source of workplace stress cited by employees. Managers have to become great communicators so they can convey exactly what is expected of each team member, and to know whether the expectations are too much. If an employee is taking on too much, offload appropriately, even if it means adjusting expectations or seeking outside/temporary help.
- Watch for Overwork
Very few managers are going to say anything about an employee working endless hours. Who wants to discourage that behavior? Well, it turns out that overworking is a real issue and has serious long-term consequences. Consider a policy that forbids working past certain hours, or at least conditioning managers to be examples by unplugging themselves outside of the office.
- Connect with Third Parties
You're not going to be able to solve every employee issue, but you can point employees in the right direction. Whether it’s financial planning, food banks, domestic abuse shelters, elder care experts, or any other issue, build a rolodex of helpful third parties you can connect employees with.
Stress is Your Responsibility
And that's kind of a bummer, right? You've got your own job and your own stresses.
Open enrollment anyone?!
Not to mention budgets, regulatory changes, day-to-day employee relations, deadlines, recruiting and prospecting, and everything else that falls under the HR umbrella.
But this is the life of HR and management. You have your own hard job, but a major part of that is nurturing and developing a team of employees. Humans. People with all sorts of problems and issues.
Most of those people have committed to spending half of their waking lives serving your business and your brand. They're paid to do it, sure, but that doesn't mean you're going to get their best work.
To get that buy-in, you have to remove obstacles to productivity and happiness. That means taking a very close look at the sources of stress, and providing aid however possible.
Ignoring stress in employees, even if it comes from outside sources, is potentially fatal. Besides crushing your productivity, too much stress can create active disengagement and resentment. Those lead to turnover and in some cases, sabotage.
As much as businesses are about dollars and cents, they're only going to go as far as the people who comprise them.