Beth Freeman (not her real name) woke up one Monday morning to find she couldn’t get out of bed. She could move her fingers, head and feet but had no energy in her arms and legs. Her doctor told her she was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome brought on by stress. Her organization had been asking a lot from her: sometimes she would work 36 hours straight, driving from city-to-city with three appointments in a single day, on pace to drive 100,000 miles in a year. After changing jobs, getting medical treatment and modifying her diet, Beth began to improve. It took her six months of living a radically different life to feel normal again.

Beth is an example of the stress-related health problems that afflict employees and burden their companies and their national health systems. Researchers at Harvard and Stanford estimate that workplace stress in the United States contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for as much as $190 billion in health care costs.

Employers are well aware of the employee health and economic implications of workplace stress. Respondents to our global 2015/2016 Staying@Work survey (senior managers in human resources) identified stress as the No. 1 risk to employee health and productivity. But employers and employees disagree – in some cases dramatically – about the causes of workplace stress.

When asked to identify the top causes of workplace stress, U.S. employers and employees had just one factor in common in their top three choices: inadequate staffing, which employees ranked No. 1 and employers ranked No. 1. Opinions diverged after that.

Employer picks for top stressors fell into categories of large organizational issues such as change and ubiquitous technology connections, seen as factors that can exacerbate individual concerns about personal financial stability and work/life balance. While employees also expressed concern about the pace and magnitude of change, they pointed more directly to elements of their personal work experience as major causes of stress – for example, insufficient rewards and unclear job priorities.

The stressor that employers ranked last from their list of choices – company culture – was the No. 3 choice of employees.

In our work with employers on health and productivity strategies, we have found that local manifestations of an organization’s culture – stifling bureaucracy, executive indifference to employee well-being and lack of teamwork – exacerbate an unhealthy work environment.

Further, we have observed that if organizations don’t fully grasp how employees experience workplace stressors, chances are low that employees will adopt sweeping programmatic responses to stress. For example, in our Staying@Work survey, employers indicated that the most common stress management strategy is to promote the organization’s employee assistance program (EAP). But we know from many research studies that only about 5% of employees use EAP resources. In addition, from our 2015/2016 Global Benefits Attitude Survey of employees, we learned that 70% of employees said they prefer to manage health on their own.

Focus on culture

Do these disconnections between employers and employees mean that organizations are powerless to address the array of stressors that afflict employees? Fortunately not, but an effective response requires employers to reframe the problem of stress. Managers must come to see workplace stress as rooted largely in the local work context: demands grow, work pace accelerates, information explodes and social connectivity distracts. A comprehensive response to these kinds of stressors encompasses three essential components:

1. Modify the stressors. Enlightened organizations would perform a thorough organizational diagnostic, pinpointing the causes of stress across the company. Armed with this information – reinforced by a belief that damaging stress is not inevitable – leadership would engage employees and managers alike in identifying ways of reducing, eliminating or transforming stressors wherever possible.

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"A true culture of health begins with top leadership’s recognizing that responding to stress is critical to individual and organizational health."

2. Strengthen the individual’s response to stress. Ultimately, each employee must have the capacity to withstand, and be productive in spite of, the seemingly intractable stressors inherent in 21st century working life. Organizations and local managers can help employees expand and tap their individual reserves of resilience through training, coaching and personal support.

3. Help with recovery. In cases where the first two responses are not enough – that is, situations in which an employee’s health is harmed by exposure to workplace stressors that couldn’t be mitigated or withstood through resilience – organizations should help people find healing resources that are easily accessible, completely discrete, and highly individualized.

A true culture of health begins with top leadership’s recognizing that responding to stress is critical to individual and organizational health. This philosophy calls for senior executives to value employee well-being and demonstrate their commitment to improving it, one employee and one manager at a time. With actions built on that foundation, employees like Joanne should find that their hard work and dedication produce fulfillment rather than strain, success rather than frustration and well-being rather than illness.

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