By Jen Porter
One morning in the winter of 2013, I woke up shaking uncontrollably. I had no other physical symptoms and slow breathing, distraction or other intervention would not help. Eventually, my body calmed down. This happened again a week later and then it started happening regularly, sometimes lasting for hours.
My diagnosis? The stress.
I started an organization, enrolled in a full-time graduate program, and was involved in several side projects. I was intensely productive while being “healthy” in all dimensions—exercising regularly, eating healthily, finding social and spiritual connection. But all of that was insufficient for the demands I faced at work and school.
My experience with severe stress became the new normal for many employees. With the uncertainty in the economy, the geopolitical climate, and the fallout from the pandemic, it’s no wonder that nearly half of American workers are feeling burned out.
In our work at Mind Share Partners, we see that companies are taking note of the stressors employees face – 90% of employers are increasing investment in mental health programs, 76% in stress management and resilience programs, and 71% in mindfulness programs and mediation. However, responding by doubling down on individual wellness supports—as I have done—will not be effective without addressing the source of work-generated stress.
Endurance training is meaningless without looking in the mirror
Tools that help individuals manage their own mental health are just one component of a company culture that supports mental health. Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report found that the most desired resource for mental health employees in the US is not a benefit at all, but an open culture about mental health at work. Telling your people, “Here’s an app to help with work stress,” may be helpful, but it’s not enough. If your employees work in an environment with long hours, providing a tool that requires extra time to use may seem ridiculous.
Employers must stop viewing chronic stress as solely an individual responsibility and approach stress and mental health at work as a collective priority. It requires a change in the way we work. Companies should prioritize taking the time to understand, identify, and mitigate the stressors that affect their workforce, while providing training and resources to help employees, managers, and leaders build skills to manage unavoidable stressors that are not we can control them. Below are three key approaches for employers.
Bring mental health considerations into your work practices
Mitigating chronic stress requires belief and commitment from management and the entire organization that we are all in this together. In stressful economic times, companies tend to pull back on investments in training, support, DEIB and culture change that focuses on employee well-being – we’re seeing signs of that now. As fears of a recession grow and companies are forced to cut costs, soft skills development programs can easily be cut. This is a mistake. Thoughts and practices that support mental health should fit into the way you run your business. Companies that take employee mental health seriously emerge stronger from economic downturns.
Mental health support and training should be woven into the company culture, not a one-off training delivered when a crisis occurs. During the pandemic, many organizations have increased their investment in mental health, but that enthusiasm has faded into the background as belts tighten and we physically return to work.
But here’s the thing: stress builds up over time, and stressors pile on top of each other. Reducing stress doesn’t happen overnight either. Companies must invest time and resources to examine how various aspects of company culture and practice create stress. This can include anything from changing the organization’s values, to redefining benefits, to rethinking performance management and advancement. The Surgeon General’s new framework for mental health and wellness in the workplace is a great place to start.
Help teams manage negative workplace stressors where possible
Many of the levers that increase or decrease stress occur at the team level. In times of chronic stress and uncertainty, clear, frequent communication within teams becomes crucial. Managers and their teams need to discuss what expectations are, how things work within the group and how problems are managed.
My colleague Bill Green, principal at Mind Share Partners, notes, “The challenge in our world right now is that it seems very difficult to turn off stress. But there are ways to mitigate the impact – at least in the workplace.” He recommends that leaders and managers set clear norms and establish adaptations that can help employees cope with high stress when it comes.
He suggests evaluating answers to questions such as:
- What are the basic working hours for the teams?
- When a task comes, do we talk about deadlines, capacity, working hours?
- Are there reminders of values and purpose that give context and meaning to the work that everyone understands and supports?
It doesn’t matter if the employees are lawyers, in financial services, hospital staff or hourly shift workers, conversations about norms and adaptations that focus on people, not just production, have a significant impact on mental health.
“You want to reduce anxiety through clarity,” says author and workplace anxiety expert Maura Aarons-Mele. “In times of stress, people are anxious when they operate on assumptions, assumptions, and expectations from the past.” Unpack how work gets done and develop clear ground rules for how work gets done, along with ideas for adjustments you can make if the employee needs time off.
One-to-one communications are also important. Managers who take the time to really check in with their team, and do so often, can identify challenges and problems earlier and work with staff to resolve them more effectively.
Build fluency around what stress is and how it occurs at work
When people know their stressors, they can take steps to mitigate the negative effects. It is important to remember that we need a certain amount of stress. Stress and anxiety drive performance and a certain amount of stress is productive.
Think about the anxiety you feel when you’re facing a deadline or giving a presentation to a group. In her book Good Anxiety, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, challenges the conventional wisdom that stress and anxiety are always bad, all the time. Her work in neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt in response to the environment—has become a cornerstone of her research into how we can take control of our anxiety and make it a useful tool instead of a negative, unproductive feeling that controls us. .
The key is to find the “knife’s edge” between this desired state where we are alert and ready to act, and the kind of negative anxiety or stress response that compromises our functioning. “Good anxiety,” as Dr. Suzuki defines it, is the body-brain space where we are engaged, alert, and feeling just enough stress to maximize our attention and focus on what we want to do.
“These moments of stress are very different from the chronic stress many of us experience now,” notes Bill Green. People suffer when stress and anxiety never turn off, and chronic stress brings harmful mental and physical symptoms. Fortunately, there are proactive ways that organizations can reduce the impact of negative stressors in their workplace, both in the moment and over time. Leaders cannot control what happens in the world or the economy, but they can develop sustainable ways of working, understand the factors that negatively affect mental health in their workplace, and equip employees with the resources, knowledge, and skills to proactively manage. what they can.
In uncertain times, investing in mental health at work makes all the difference.