Recently, I was reading an article in the New York Times on a potential epidemic where the workload and expectations put on school children across the country is causing a massively high amount of stress, anxiety, and even childhood depression. In fact, even very young kids are going to the doctor because of stomach ulcers.
The basic idea behind the article is that all kids, regardless of socioeconomic status or college goals are given hours of homework a night – for each class – including on the weekends, and have their days filled with rote. Yet, they still have other things going on that makes them a well-rounded, potentially college-bound student: sports, club meetings, part-time jobs, band practice, etc.
Not only is all of this effect the health of even the youngest students, but it is not even that beneficial. Studies suggest that once these kids get to college, they aren’t even prepared, as universities are reporting a remarkable downward spiral in critical thinking skills.
The article then goes on to point out some of the schools where changes are being made to combat these issues. Homework is being limited, counselors are meeting with students before they register in order to make sure they chose a manageable workload, and other helpful cures have been implemented.
While in many cases it is too early to see definitive results of these changes, early signs point to good things. In fact, in some cases, those signs point to students actually doing better in school above and beyond just performing at the same level, but without as much stress.
All of this is well and good. However, I do see a future issue with this cause. The workload and expectations put on school-aged children is just a small glimpse of what their future holds. You see, the problem with fixing this problem, in my opinion, is that it is often just delaying the inevitable. This problem doesn’t get any better as we get older.
Stress in the Workplace
Stress is more than just an annoying fly circling your head all day – it can be dangerous to your health when present in too high volumes. Stress can cause all sorts of physical conditions. As examples:
- Weight loss or gain
- Heart problems
- Gastronomical conditions
I’m just getting started too. And work, while not the only thing that can cause someone to be overly stressed, is often-times a major factor in it. In fact, according to a paper by Harvard Business School last year, the ultimate effect of some of the bigger workplace stressors end up being deadlier than the flu, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes.
Of course, you cannot look at this epidemic without looking at its monetary value. So here is a big statistic for you: stress related health problems cause an estimated $180 billion (that is billion with a B) in healthcare costs each year (see the above linked article for where I got that number).
So what exactly is causing all these workers to get sick, anyway?
According to the Harvard report, some of the biggest workplace stressors include
- Long working hours
- Insecure working environments
- No health insurance
I don’t think many people would argue that stress isn’t an issue in workplaces across the country. However, I think where the real debate comes into play is what can be done about it and whether businesses should even try.
After all, if they can’t handle the working environment, maybe they shouldn’t be there anyway, some might say. So is it the employers job to care about this issue?
10 Reasons to Reduce Workplace Stress
I say yes. So let’s address some reasons why stress should be a concern for businesses, no matter the industry or location. These reasons range from legal to financial to business-oriented. However, let’s not forget that there is also an altruistic reason that doesn’t even make this top 10. Sometimes, creating a positive, limited stress environment is just the nice thing to do.
- Sick employees are often absent employees. More to the point, even when sick employees aren’t absent employees, they are employees who are more likely to suffer from presentism – which results when the worker may be there physically, but isn’t performing how they should be.
- Health Insurance Costs. As already mentioned, the health costs associated with stress is extremely high. So businesses that work to reduce stress in their workplaces can actually end up reducing the costs of their health insurance payouts.
- Overworked employees are more likely to make mistakes on the job. This can be problematic for employers because they need the job to be done right. However, when those mistakes aren’t just mental, but physical, those mistakes can lead to occupational injuries.
- Workers’ Comp. Those occupational injuries I mentioned in the last point lead to workers’ compensation, which is another expense to add with those astronomical health insurance costs.
- Legal Consequences. Think about the last two points. First, whether the mistakes made where mental or physical, there could be some legal consequences from them. OSHA might come in if the injuries are persistent, severe, and/or caused by negligence or worse. If the mental or paperwork mistakes are affecting the product or service, customers might have lawsuits or malpractice suits.
- Employee Selections. It goes without saying that the better the level of employee you attract, the stronger your workforce. However, a lot of people in today’s world have the ability to pick and choose. A company’s reputation precedes them. If current employees are overly, unreasonably stressed, then that is going to show up in reviews and recommendations. This could affect just who is applying for the positions.
- Employee Turnover. Similar to the above, once you get that incredible employee, you want to be able to keep them.
- Work Levels. Even the best employee can burnout. Once burnout is reached, the work performance by that individual is going to drop. Now, imagine all of your workers being burned out, and picture the consequences.
- More Legal Consequences. While extreme, if the workplace stress level gets to be too bad, other legal consequences not already mentioned could arise. Think about some of the reasons stress might be present – for example, if workers don’t feel safe, you could have a problem. Don’t let hostile work environments be your downfall.
- More Financial Consequences. Outside of health insurance and workers’ comp, there are other financial effects of extreme workplace stress. For example, when work performance slips, so to can profits.
10 Ways to Reduce Workplace Stress
Let me start out this section by saying that all stress does not need to be eliminated from the workplace. First of all, some amount of stress can actually be good. Second, some jobs are just always going to be stressful no matter how many stress-reducing tips are taken. However, the excessive, health risking amount of stress being placed on some workers can be bad for everyone.
So if you feel your employees are overly stressed, and you want to reduce some of your legal risks and financial costs, all while getting a better level of work performed, then here are some simple ways to reduce stress.
(And notice that I am going with some pretty basic things here. I didn’t go with all the stuff tech companies are offering today like beer fridges in the workroom and unlimited vacations. You don’t have to go that far. However, if you are interested in creating that type of benefit package, then look at Google – or pretty much any other employer in Silicon Valley.)
- Create, and encourage employees to use, vacation days. Taking a vacation gives workers the mental break they need to truly refresh and come back working stronger than ever.
- Offer a benefits package. Outside of any required benefits you must give your workers, a strong benefits package not only attracts good workers, it helps ensure that employees have one less thing to stress about.
- Create realistic workloads. One employee should not be doing the work of five. Not only is that bad for the employee, it is bad for the employer. When one person is doing more than they can possibly handle, then none of the work is going to be done at the level it should be. However, notice that the key word here is realistic. I’m not saying give people as little work as possible – in fact, too little work can often be just as stressful as too much work. All I’m saying is be realistic in giving workers a workload they can actually handle successfully.
- Have contact with employees. You know how the solution schools are seeing success with is to have counselors help students create schedules they can manage? The best way to ensure your workers are able to handle their workload is to be in contact with them, as well. Talk to an employee in order to figure out what they can handle. Don’t just have someone make decisions from afar.
- Offer good job training. Stress can be caused by being unsure of how to perform tasks. Job and assignment training helps instill confidence in workers so they can feel they know what they are doing and that they are doing it right.
- Stabilize work environments to the extent possible. You cannot, and do not want to, ensure all workers that they have a job for as long as they want one. However, unstable working environments, ones where workers do not know from day to day whether they will even have a job, are really stressful. So, to the extent possible, try to create an environment with a little stability.
- Be communicative. Going along with that last point is communication. If your business is going through a transition period, be as open as possible about it with workers. In fact, just be good at communicating important information to employees whenever you can. The more they know about what is happening, the less worried about it they need to be.
- Encourage mentorships. Having someone at work who can advise and mentor you can help you get through a lot. So having an actual mentorship program or at least encouraging more seasoned workers to help the newer hires can go a long way towards reducing stress.
- Offer mental health benefits, such as an EAP. Employee Assistance Programs have many benefits. Stress-reduction is only one such benefit. Through your EAP, you could offer stress and time management tips, counseling, and yoga, just as examples.
- Create realistic working schedules. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s stressful to work 100 hours a week.
Workplace stress doesn’t only affect the worker – it effects the business and the other employees in the working environment as well. To avoid the legal consequences, bad reputation, and financial pitfalls of a dangerously stressful environment, hopefully some of the above tips can help you.