By Jen Porter
One morning in the winter of 2013, I woke up shaking uncontrollably. I had no other physical symptoms and no slow breathing, distraction or other intervention would help me. Eventually, my body calmed down. It happened again a week later and then started happening regularly, sometimes lasting for hours.
My diagnosis? Stress.
I was starting an organization, enrolling in a full-time graduate program, and doing several side projects. I was intensely productive while being “healthy” in all dimensions – exercising regularly, eating healthy, finding social and spiritual connections. But all this was insufficient compared to the demands I faced at work and school.
My experience of intense stress has become the new normal for many employees. With economic uncertainty, the geopolitical climate and the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s no wonder that nearly half of American workers are feeling burnt out.
In our work at Mind Share Partners, we find that companies are noticing the stress employees face: 90% of employers are increasing investment in mental health programs, 76% in stress management and resilience programs, and 71% in mindfulness and mediation programs. However, responding by doubling down on individual wellness supports — as I have done — will not be effective without addressing the source of work-created stress.
Resilience training is meaningless without looking in the mirror
Tools that help individuals manage their own mental health are just one part of a corporate culture that supports mental health. Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health in the Workplace Report found that the most sought-after resource by American employees for mental health is not a perk at all, but an open culture about mental health in the workplace. Saying to your co-workers “Here’s an app to help you manage stress at work” can help, but it’s not enough. If your employees work in an environment with long hours, providing a tool that takes longer to use may seem laughable.
Employers need to stop viewing chronic stress as the sole individual responsibility and address workplace stress and mental health as a collective priority. This requires changing the way we work. Companies should prioritize taking the time to understand, identify and mitigate the stressors affecting their workforce, while providing training and resources to help employees, managers and leaders to learn skills to manage the inevitable stressors that we cannot control. Here are three key approaches for employers.
Integrate mental health considerations into your work practices
Mitigating chronic stress requires a belief and commitment from leaders and the entire organization that we are all in this together. In times of economic crisis, companies tend to reduce investment in training, support, DEIB and culture change focused on employee wellbeing – we are seeing signs of this now. As fear of a recession grows and companies are forced to cut costs, it may seem easy to scale back “soft skills” development programs. It is a mistake. Considerations and practices that promote mental health should be integrated into the way you run your business. Companies that take the mental health of their employees seriously emerge stronger from economic downturns.
Mental health support and training should be built into the culture of the company, not a one-off training that is provided in a crisis. During the pandemic, many organizations have increased their investment in mental health, but that enthusiasm has faded 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 need to invest time and resources to examine how various aspects of company culture and practices create stress. This could include everything from changing organizational values to redefining benefits to overhauling performance and advancement management. The Surgeon General’s new framework on mental health and workplace well-being is a great place to start.
Help teams deal with negative stressors in the workplace whenever possible
Many of the levers that increase or reduce stress occur at the team level. In times of chronic stress and uncertainty, clear and frequent communication within teams becomes crucial. Managers and their teams should discuss expectations, how work is done within the group, and how issues are handled.
My colleague Bill Greene, 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 lessen the impact, at least in the workplace. He recommends that leaders and managers set clear standards and establish accommodations that can help employees deal with high stress when it arises.
He suggests evaluating answers to questions such as:
- What are the basic operating hours for shifts?
- When a mission arrives, is there a conversation about deadlines, about capacity, about working hours?
- Are there values and purpose reminders that give context and meaning to the work that everyone understands and supports?
Whether the employees are lawyers, financial services, hospital staff or hourly shift workers, conversations about standards and adaptations that focus on people, not just production, have a significant impact on the Mental Health.
“You want to reduce anxiety through clarity,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, author and workplace anxiety expert. “In times of stress, people become anxious when operating on assumptions, presumptions and past expectations.” Unpack how work is done and develop clear ground rules for how work is done, along with ideas for accommodations you can make if an employee needs a break.
Individual communications are also important. Managers who take the time to really check in with their team, and do so frequently, can address challenges and issues sooner and work with staff to resolve them more effectively.
Develop fluency around what stress is and how it manifests 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 some amount of stress is productive.
Think about the anxiety you feel when faced with a deadline or about to give a presentation in front of a group. In her book Good Anxiety, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural sciences and psychology at New York University, pushes back against the conventional wisdom that stress and anxiety are always bad, all the time. His work on neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to adapt in response to the environment – has become a cornerstone of his research into how we can control our anxiety and make it a useful tool rather than a negative feeling. and unproductive that controls us.
The key is to find the “knife’s edge” between that desirable state where we are alert and ready to act, and the kind of negative anxiety or stress reaction that compromises our functioning. “Good anxiety,” as Dr. Suzuki defines it, is the brain-body space where we are engaged, alert, and feel just stressed enough to maximize our attention and focus on what we want to do.
“These moments of stress are very different from the chronic stress that many of us are currently experiencing,” notes Bill Greene. People suffer when stress and anxiety never go away, and chronic stress leads to damaging mental and physical symptoms. Fortunately, there are proactive ways for organizations to reduce the impact of negative workplace stressors, both in the moment and over time. Leaders can’t control what happens in the world or the economy, but they can develop sustainable ways of working, understand the factors that negatively impact mental health in their workplace, and equip employees with the resources, knowledge and skills to proactively manage what they can.
In times of uncertainty, investing in workplace mental health makes all the difference.
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