How to Keep Stress from Sabotaging Workplace Culture and Productivity

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the overall level of stress people are feeling in your organization? Are you able to answer this question?

If you're in a leadership role, it's important to stay vigilant about managing not only your own stress but maintaining an awareness of employee stress levels within your organization.

On one hand, a small amount of stress can boost productivity by giving us an incentive to do our best, especially when there's no fear of a negative outcome. This is often referred to as "positive stress." On the other hand, too much stress will weigh heavily on our minds and bodies, reducing our productivity and leading to a workplace culture that certainly won't attract or retain talent.

Here are some startling statistics that illustrate why organizations need to mindful of managing stress:

  • 73% of Americans are stressed to some degree at work (Harris Interactive).
  • 40% of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful (The American Institute of Stress).
  • 65% of workers said that workplace stress had caused difficulties, and more than 10% described these as having major effects (Integra).

Let's put these statistics in the context of a small-to-medium sized company of 250 employees:

  • 183 of those 250 employees are stressed at work.
  • 100 of those workers are very or extremely stressed.
  • 163 are finding difficulties in managing that stress in the midst of their work activities.

If this example of a 250-person company doesn't illustrate the impact, here's another way to look at it: 6.5 million sick days are taken every year as a result of stress, costing the United States $200 billion annually (HighBeam Research).

And it's directly affecting work quality and productivity: 53% of Americans say stress dampens their productivity in the workplace (MHS), and workers experiencing high levels of stress may be more liable to commit errors in their work (RoSPA).

High levels of workplace stress are leading to increased absenteeism, health problems, job dissatisfaction, and big losses in revenue.

Work-related stress can have a number of causes, including fear-based cultures that leave employees anxious about their performance, ineffective or insufficiently trained leadership, unmanageable workloads, and unaddressed relational issues between colleagues.

Even our own personal ability to handle external stressors is a contributing factor. To some extent, managing stress is an inside job. We can choose not to react negatively to external pressures, but the truth is that no matter what context or attitude we use to approach people and situations in life, no one wants the world around them to be an adversary or something to overcome—this is why creating a healthy, low-stress work environment is vital for our cultures and our success. We have to create environments externally that mirror how we want to feel internally, and vice versa.

If you haven't already, the first course of action is to get a sense of the stress level within your organization. Ask employees directly about how stressed they feel and consider sending out a survey to gather some qualitative that can help direct next steps Here are a few questions to ask individual employees to help you gain a better sense of the current level of stress in your organization:

1. On an average work day, how stressed do you feel on a scale of 1-10?

2. What do you believe is the main cause(s) of your work-related stress?

3. What steps do you currently take to address or manage your stress?

4. Do you feel comfortable having a conversation with your supervisor about your current level of stress?

Here are some follow-up steps you can take to improve your workplace culture, reduce stress, and boost productivity all at the same time:

1. Make room for white space.

Creating white space is about more than taking an occasional break—it's about committing to taking intentional pauses before and after meetings or between tasks for thoughtful reflection. Make white space a part of your organization's culture. Communicate its value and encourage employees to implement it into their work day.

White space is so important in our daily life that Juliet Funt (one of our speakers at the 2017 Fierce Summit) created Whitespace at Work, INC. Her firm provides solutions for organizations wanting to avoid burnout and maximize the amount of unscheduled time employees have to simply think and strategize. To quote Funt, "When a company adds WhiteSpace to its culture, every single employee benefits. You can almost hear an audible sigh of relief as a path is cleared back to strategic thinking and focus."

Whether we're in a technical or creative role, we need this creative breathing room. Research shows that although epiphanies seem to come out of nowhere, they often happen as the result of downtime, or "white space." If you want to increase innovation and creativity in your organization, white space is the way to do it.

2. Deliver what employees want.

Avoid making assumptions about what employees want. While happy hours and an office pool table may be great additions, these types of perks only scratch the surface of what are much less superficial needs. Surveys reveal that today's workforce craves a sense of purpose and meaning, development opportunities, and work-life balance.

Organizations with the best cultures and least amount of stress take employee requests into strong consideration and understand that relationships are the life blood of success. The best cultures take employee needs and desires, both physical and emotional, into account—leadership expresses appreciation, provides ongoing feedback, grants autonomy, and listens with curiosity.

If you want your workplace culture to be successful, building emotional capital and trust across your organization is essential. Ask questions to gain understanding, have coaching conversations, and listen intently. Support the need for personal and professional growth by providing learning opportunities.

3. Assess workloads and employee capacity.

Approximately 46% of employee stress is caused by excessive workloads. This is a pervasive problem in many organizations, and one that needs to be addressed. Excessive workloads can cause issues among all levels of an organization, burdening leadership, teams, and individual employees.

This step probably doesn't sit well with organizations that are trying to do as much as possible with very little. While maximizing resources and employee capacity can be beneficial, especially in times of transition, overburdening employees with massive workloads isn't worth saving a dollar when stress has become your culture. If bringing on an extra hire or perhaps a freelancer can help alleviate some of the burden, strongly consider making this investment.

When it comes to workloads, delegate effectively, and avoid dele-dumping. Effective delegation is one way for overloaded leaders to free up some of their time and place their energy where it's needed most while giving other employees an opportunity to grow and develop in new areas.

4. Allow mental health days.

52% of workers say their company does not do enough to promote employee health, including mental health. Whether you call them "mental health days" or simply allow them to be a part of existing sick days, it's essential to honor the employee need for recovery and downtime. If an employee feels exhausted after completing an extensive project, it will be better for productivity overall if they're able to take some time to regenerate…and return to work bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

In a healthy culture, there is no shame in employees recognizing when they need a break and asking for one. The alternative is dire—stressed out employees that don't feel comfortable asking for what they need, resulting in subpar performance, and ultimately leaving your organization.

Not everyone wants to get into personal issues, nor do their colleagues always want to hear these details. That does not, however, mean that team members can't be supportive of an employee who needs to take a day or more off to address issues that are affecting their well-being to prevent larger stress-related issues (and more missed days) down the road. This starts at the top—when a team leader shows support, or even takes these days themselves, understanding becomes contagious and trust grows.

5. Make it about the journey, not the destination.

We're all on a journey, both individually and collectively, and strong leaders will support their teams as needed. Offer avenues for growth as part of this journey rather than placing all of the focus on outcomes.

In a Deloitte survey, 82% of respondents said making a workplace error causes stress. This creates a vicious cycle—errors cause stress, and then stress leads to more error. If employees anticipate some form of punishment or feel they have no wiggle room to experiment or make mistakes, culture will suffer, innovation and creativity will suffer, and stress levels will rise. As a leader, you have to be willing to allow employees, and yourself, to fail. Failure is part of taking risks, and it's an important part of how we learn and grow.

6. Make conversation training a priority.

Work-related stress is a major factor in whether people like their jobs. A survey from About.com found the top three reasons why people do not like their jobs, and 62% of responses were communication related. Communication frustration leads to an unsatisfied workforce.

When there are issues in our organization that have yet to be addressed, it will show up in our lives as stress. And when leaders don't know how to have the authentic and effective conversations to address the issues, it weighs on individuals, teams, and cultures.

One way to assure leadership has the know-how to have the conversations that matter is to implement organization-wide conversations training. Conversation that's competent, skillful, and effective is the most powerful resource in business, and it's critical for solving your toughest challenges.

For the sake of culture, health, and productivity, take the necessary steps to reduce stress in your organization and transform fear-based practices now—before larger problems arise that are harder or even impossible to repair. Doing so will lead to positive results in relationships, revenue, and overall employee satisfaction.

If your organization has yet to roll out a conversations training program, you can still get a head start on the conversations you need to start having today by downloading our latest eBook here. 

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