Can summer be stressful? The shift from spring to summer actually appears to lead to an increase in stress levels, according to surprising new data.

While summertime is often seen as a leisurely season where Americans take time off for extended family vacations and enjoy long days at the beach, new research suggests time off doesn’t always translate into reduced stress. The data from meQuilibrium indicates that even if employees are spending less time in the office, factors outside the workplace may be contributing to higher stress.

Busier weekends and extended time with family and friends may make some employees feel overwhelmed. And it’s no surprise that sleep and eating habits may suffer during the summer months. What’s more, relaxing beach days can dredge up insecurities around body image and weight control, elevating stress levels.

“Work tends to be the scapegoat for our sources of stress; however, there are many other personal factors at play. These data insights regarding employees’ state of mind in the summer supports this point of view,” says Jan Bruce, co-founder and CEO of meQuilibrium. “We believe it’s notable that over two years, thousands of employees indicated they were more vulnerable to many of life’s challenges during the summer — a time that we all generally consider to be a little easier and more carefree.”

The company, which provides a digital resilience-building solution to employers, compiled insights from their extensive customer database, analyzing stress factors from more than 30,000 working men and women. These stress vulnerabilities include focus, sense of pressure, time management, emotion control, home life, social support, body image and weight control, eating habits and sleep.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

Stress is today’s top workforce health risk, surpassing even obesity and inactivity. While wellness programs often try to dissolve pressures within the workplace, there are many stress triggers, lifestyle habits, and thinking styles that can aggravate stress. Stress from home life can seep into the workplace, hampering employees’ productivity and their ability to focus.

“The end of year work crunch may be the most stressful time of the year for some, but wondering what to do with the kids when they're out of school during the summer months or planning that summer BBQ may eclipse year-end stress for many employees,” says Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., chief science officer at meQuilibrium.

Focus and time management saw a significant downward trend in the summer months. While employees may be out on vacation, they could still be distracted by what they are missing at work and dreading what awaits them when they return: overflowing inboxes and projects piling up can often increase stress.

That said, employees shouldn’t forego taking that vacation. Taking time off to recharge and spend time with family and friends makes for better employees, says Shatte.

“We need to change the way we think about vacations. These aren't luxury items; they are as important a part of optimizing performance as any existing corporate initiative,” he says.

Only 25% of Americans actually take advantage of their paid vacation benefits, according to a Forbes study from 2014.

Even if employees can’t afford to take time from the office for weeks on end, they can still enjoy mini-vacations spread out through the summer season, says Shatte.

“Our research shows we don't need big chunks of time to get a stress time-out,” explains Shatte. “What matters is that we get two to three days that are a true oasis from the workplace. Don't kid yourself that you can do that morning or evening conference call from a beach and still relax. Commit to no connectivity; don't check email or text work. This is where we can take a page out of the Europeans’ book. When they are on vacation, by and large, they are truly on vacation. They don't have one eye on that tourist site and the other on their phone.”

Day to day, Shatte recommends getting enough sleep to decrease stress levels. “Chronic poor sleep is about as physically damaging as chronic alcohol abuse,” he says. “We can't do it all and that's OK. Life is often about making choices and being at peace with the decisions we make.”

Benefit and HR managers can help alleviate employee stress by creating a positive company culture. “Do you have a corporate culture that takes time to celebrate successes or do you tend to achieve a goal and immediately move on to the next one? The latter is a recipe for burnout,” says Shatte. “As an HR manager, try to inject some positivity into every day for your people.”

Further, employers can bolster feelings of well-being by emphasizing that their workers serve a larger purpose than themselves. Cultivate a sense of meaning, mission, and purpose, says Shatte.

“Our research shows that people are burnout resistant if they have an awareness that what they're contributing at work is meaningful,” he says.

And employers that help their staff reduce stress-related burnout can expect more positive, energized and driven employees when they return from the beach.

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