By Mary C. Long, Chief Ghost, Digital Media Ghost
Businesses don’t often equate lost revenue with workplace stress. But accidents, absenteeism, medical, legal and other expenses caused by work-related stress account for $300 billion dollars in annual losses in the United States alone, according to the American Stress Institute.
So how can a business prevent workplace stress from becoming its own cost center? Let’s explore some options:
Spotting employees who are exhibiting signs of stress is step one. Company managers and human resources are usually first to know if there’s conflict at work because they’re:
- First to be notified of an employee’s frequent absences
- First to notice decreased productivity
- First to hear of irrational behavior or temper flares among employees
However, they’re often not equipped to identify whether these behaviors – mostly signs of poor work performance – are stress-related. More importantly, they are not always trained to help employees manage stress even once it is identified.
But first, the signs:
The American Addiction Center lists varying symptoms of excessive stress, categorized under cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms:
- Cognitive symptoms involve concentration problems, negative attitude, memory issues, and racing thoughts. Employees who suddenly become absent-minded or distant may be under increased stress levels, which affect their concentration and productivity.
- Emotional symptoms such as a feeling of being overwhelmed, irritability, and depression also indicate excessive stress, which may affect workplace relationships and communication.
- Behavioral symptoms manifest as a reliance on external factors such as eating either more or less than normal, or even turning to substance abuse. This can lead to neglect of responsibilities, disrupting workflow.
- Physical symptoms like frequent colds or digestive issues may cause stressed employees to call out of work more often.
Recognizing these symptoms can help alert management or HR to an employee having trouble, but sometimes a more direct approach makes better sense. Conducting employee surveys and interviews is a great method to gauge workplace stress. In addition to identifying stress, employee surveys can also help enhance employee engagement. For sample questions for employee surveys, employee engagement firm Tiny Pulse has a list of 20 questions to ask employees.
Institutionalizing stress management
As different people have different stress triggers, it can be hard to pin down a cause – because not all stress is work-related. To capture all stress concerns, whether work-related or personal, HR Magazine recommends that employers institutionalize ways to manage stress. For example, today, many companies offer and promote health and wellness programs as part of their health benefits packages.
If your company does not offer this benefit, it’s worth considering. According to the Harvard Business Review, employee wellness programs have been proven to provide “hard returns”:
“With tax incentives and grants available under recent federal health care legislation, U.S. companies can use wellness programs to chip away at their enormous health care costs, which are only rising with an aging workforce.”
The article further reports dramatic results experienced by MD Anderson Cancer Center when a workers’ compensation and injury care unit was incorporated into their employee health and well-being department:
“Within six years, lost work days declined by 80% and modified-duty days by 64%. Cost savings, calculated by multiplying the reduction in lost work days by average pay rates, totaled $1.5 million; workers’ comp insurance premiums declined by 50%.”
Stress removal for any size workplace
So what does all of this mean for SMBs with limited budgets and lots of big ideas? Managing stress is probably not at the top of your list at the moment, but all is not lost. Depending on the size of your business, you can still advance workplace stress management programs in various ways. You might consider:
- Partnering with a local yoga studio or gym to give stressed employees a place to unwind physically and mentally – while providing the added benefit of cross-promoting both businesses
- Offering flexible schedules, or work-from-home options if possible – this gives employees a sense of freedom and autonomy that can relieve the stress of working in an office environment
- Celebrating completed projects with an extra day off or long lunch – on you
And if these options aren’t possible, simply being more attuned to your employees’ moods and checking in with them on a human level can work wonders.
And if, as the SMB owner, you’re the one under stress? Forbes contributor Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle suggests you accept your own human limitations: “By acknowledging you can only do so much in one day and accepting that your health – including sleep, exercise and eating habits – all contribute to your overall professional performance, you can better manage your day-to-day stresses.”
However you do it, keeping stress out of the workplace – as much as you can – will make your organization a much happier and productive place for all concerned. And that’s very good for business.