Stress: the Biggest Threat to Employee Engagement and Productivity (Plus, How to Fight It)

Posted by Kendra Lusty on Jul. 29, 2022

Stress doesn’t have to be bad. In small doses, stress can motivate you to reach your goals, stave off boredom and make successes more meaningful.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, too much stress is a literal killer. Damage from long-term stress can range from mental fatigue and depression to physical symptoms like high blood pressure. Everyday stress has been on the rise for many years. And let’s face it, the last few years have added a perfect storm of stress-inducing world events.

But stress response is a funny thing. It’s built in to us, a set of body and hormone changes that help us respond to danger. Today’s stress isn’t usually due to a life-or-death situation. However, the human body can’t always tell the difference. Worse, the built-in responses often cause well-meaning people to act inappropriately. This is especially true where stress (good and bad) is common, like in the workplace.

  • “Run for your life!” is an appropriate response to a bear attack, not so much to a work assignment that feels challenging.
  • “Slow down and conserve energy!” could save your life during a harsh winter, but may make you perpetually late to work if you dread your morning meeting
  • A “fight back!” response probably helped our ancestors protect limited resources from theft, but the same response won’t help you succeed on a team project.

The good news for Human Resources professionals is that you can be part of the solution. By implementing stress management solutions today, you can enjoy a healthier, happier workplace right away.

The Impact of Stress on the Workplace

Individuals can vary greatly in their stress tolerance levels, their reactions and in the strength of their reactions to stress. To make it even more complicated, many of us are acting instinctively and are completely unaware that stress is the cause of our woes.

Spotting a stressed-out employee can be tricky, and knowing how to help them can be even trickier. Stress can look like:

  •  stress-VBe9zj-JHBs-unsplashPerpetual lateness or afternoon sluggishness
  • Distraction or low motivation leading to a dip in productivity 
  • Combativeness against colleagues and higher-ups
  • Fear or reluctance to try new or challenging things
  • Taking frequent sick days or coming to work ill
  • Increased complaints to HR about co-workers, lack of support, emotional distress, etc. 
  • Job hopping or a “grass is greener” attitude
  • Neglecting physical health through harmful habits like smoking and overeating

If you're looking for the biggest threat to employee engagement, don't bother with your competitors, or budgets, or productivity. The sneaky, compounding effects of stress come with a heavy price – both physically and monetarily. According to the American Psychiatric Association, excessive workplace stress causes 120,000 deaths and nearly $190 billion in health care costs every single year. And a survey by the American Institute of Stress showed us that stress causes 100 million workers per day to miss work.

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. Employees are practically begging for it: 1 in 4 employees want benefits that help support their mental health, which includes stress and resiliency management activities (a priority for 40% of them).

Where Does Stress Come From?

Before you can help manage stress in your office, it's important to understand where it originates. Burnout from stress rarely happens after a single event, but more often from the relentless build-up of small stressors over time.

Many Stresses Originate Outside the Office

For example, as much as 75% of the US population is worried about their finances. Given the impacts of rapid inflation and fear of recession, that number is likely much higher.

As much as 17% of the US workforce at any given time is providing care for an aging person. And on average, 1/3 of any given workforce is made up of parents, who value flexible work schedules to help compensate for all the unexpected needs that children bring. While both of these situations are stressful on their own, there's a portion of the population that experiences overlap. About half of all caregivers also have children under 18 at home, a veritable double whammy of compounding stress.

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It’s hard nowadays to find an employee who ISN’T stressed about the state of the world. Since the pandemic in 2020 there have been back-to back-major world events: the war in Ukraine, shortages on critical groceries and supplies, soaring fuel prices, just to name a few.

And on top of all this, an unknown number could be experiencing family issues, like a struggling marriage or declining mental health.

Many Stresses Come From Inside the Office

Lurking inside your office is a whole other set of stress factors. 80% of employees are stressed out by work.

More people than ever reported feeling the top three workplace stressors in 2021. 56% reported low salaries, 54% long hours and 52% reported a lack of opportunity for growth or advancement (all up from 2019) as being significant workplace stressors 

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.

And you better pay attention, because employees who are typically stressed out during the workday are 3 times as likely to quit for new opportunities within the next year (71% vs 20%). 

What Can You Do About it?

  • Open Doors

stress ball smallIt'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. One survey showed only 40% of employees would tell their employer if they are stressed out. It may take a little encouragement and some time to build trust. Just 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. This is especially valuable to parents and caregivers who might otherwise have to quit when emergencies occur at home. 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 of meanings. On one hand, your employees should know that they’re physically protected in your office. This took on special meaning during the pandemic, when fear of working in close proximity with others was at an all time high. 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.

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  • 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. Encourage employees to use their paid time off, and maybe even help subsidize amazing vacations which are so good for morale.

  • 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. Mental health issues have been on the rise, much of it caused by stress overload (and simultaneously causing even more stress in a damaging feedback loop). So too should your mental health resources be on the rise. 

  • Help Them Financially

While you can’t exactly give pay raises every time the price of milk goes up, there are many ways employers can help their people take control of their finances. For example, lifestyle benefits such as discounts can help people stretch their paychecks further. Everyday expenses like food, clothing, services and more add up fast, but so do the savings with a quality employee discount program that covers all the necessities.

Stress is Your Responsibility

And that's kind of a bummer, right? You've got your own job and your own HR related stresses.

The HR Stress Index survey results

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.

Yet 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 guarantee 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.

stress free zone ahead small

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.

It's good for your business, but more than that, it's just good business.


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Topics: Employee Engagement + Loyalty, Benefits Trends

Kendra Lusty

Written by Kendra Lusty

For over a decade, Kendra Lusty has been a writer for Access Development, and currently focuses her research and writing on topics related to loyalty and engagement.