The concept of fight-flight-freeze is ingrained in human physiology as a protective response to external stressors. From an elevated heartbeat to increased oxygen and blood flow to dilated pupils to tensed muscles to perspiration—it’s all an autonomic response to real or perceived danger. Stress can help someone mature after learning a difficult lesson. (“I’m not going to make that mistake again.”) It can motivate necessary growth and enhance performance, forcing adaptation and creativity and encouraging new and improved coping skills. A positive response to stress can mend relationships, be the impetus for better lifestyle choices and create new opportunities.
In home health, for example, a fear of infection can be positive, as it can create an abundance of caution and encourage the proper use of safety techniques and tools when working with patients. When a person is properly equipped and trained, their stress is reduced because they have faith in people, processes and policies. However, if they are uncertain about corporate or personal dedication to safety, their stress may be heightened.
When Stress Goes Wrong
However, never-ending stress is a problem. According to Science Daily, stress puts the body on constant alert with physical, psychological and emotional repercussions. From a physical perspective, “chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response.” Stress can also “suppress the immune system,” trigger “severe broncho-constriction in asthmatics,” increase the risk of diabetes, lead to “peptic ulcers, stress ulcers or ulcerative colitis,” create issues for the heart with “plaque buildup in the arteries” and possibly even increase the likelihood of cancer, according to the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences.
From a psychological perspective, chronic stress can create neuroses that can have “a formative role in the onset of neurotic depression (mixed depressive illness) and a precipitating role in schizophrenic episodes” while creating anxiety that impacts performance. From an emotional perspective, chronic stress can ruin a life.
So how does stress impact a workplace? How does it impact workers? Not surprisingly, they intersect. Although absenteeism is usually characterized by a willful negligence to attend, workplace stress can certainly create valid reasons for it. Whether the cause is unreasonable expectations (long hours, aggressive metrics, shift-work sleep disorder), dangerous or difficult circumstances, disharmonious relationships, frustrating bureaucracy or perceived incompetence, workers might need a periodic mental health day to manage the stress of being at work.
The issue of presenteeism—a worker being present but not functioning optimally—can be much more insidious. If the stress level at the workplace, or brought by the employee from home, is so high as to be unmanageable, it can have a significant negative impact on productivity through lowered attention to detail and reduced quality of work—and it can hurt the entire team. Stress, when left alone, can turn what seems to be a strong working relationship into a house of cards.
Obviously, the risks of not properly managing or addressing stress are high. From momentary productivity to sustained performance, the impact on the employee (losing their job) and employer (losing business) due to decreased individual and team capabilities can be incredibly negative. Adding to this is the natural contagion of stress; although it may be specifically related to one person, relationship or scenario, stress almost always affects others. What appears to be an isolated situation might actually be just the first of many ripple effects.
What’s an Employer to Do?
An employer should work to minimize workplace stress with proactive measures. Granted, where more than one human being is gathered, there is an opportunity for stress to enter the equation. But just like some employers have a zero-wound target, employers can likewise target a zero-stress environment. “Zero” might not be achievable in either situation, but constantly reinforcing the goal heightens awareness.
While it may not be explicitly part of your business plan, it is in your best interest to reduce the stress in your workplace and in your employees. Awareness is certainly one tactic, but it can also be accomplished by practical policies such as:
- Creating an open communication channel between management and employees to highlight issues in the workplace that cause undue stress, and, even more importantly, creating an action plan that shows responsiveness
- Organizing education on personal stress-management techniques (e.g., a lunch-and-learn on mindfulness or personal finance skills) and wellness programs on topics such as weight loss, smoking cessation, healthy nutrition, etc.
- Establishing an employee assistance program that offers anonymity but is widely publicized
- Showcasing a management team that exhibits proper stress management in the office, especially in crisis situations
- Encouraging workload balance (on the job) and work/life balance (at home) by promoting flexible schedules
- Training management on prompt, proactive conflict resolution techniques, and on how to eradicate gossip
- Forming a committee focused on eradicating stress
What’s an Employee to Do?
How can the employee better manage stress? It goes well beyond the obvious. “Among the factors that influence the susceptibility to stress,” according to the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, “are genetic vulnerability, coping style, type of personality and social support.” A person cannot change their genetic vulnerability or type of personality. However, the other two factors—coping style and social support—are constantly influenced by the individual.
Being better equipped to cope with stress in a productive rather than a destructive manner is something that can be learned through experience, mentorship and repetition. Sometimes, psychotherapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and motivation interviewing can be helpful to enhancing coping skills. Choosing a quality social support system is often within an individual’s purview to manage (e.g., choosing friends wisely). While disconnecting from toxic relationships and environments can be a painful process, once complete, it can be liberating and a propellant to better outcomes.
The lesson for employers is to foster a stress-free workplace through safety, support, transparency and compassion. The lesson for employees is to differentiate between what is and isn’t controllable and to search for ways to establish resilience (fight, rather than flight or freeze). The lesson for all is to not let stress become chronic or continual, because science (and common sense) prove its negative effects.