By Kelly Holt, CHC, Wellbeing Strategy Consultant, Paradigm Group
We can all agree that people know about stress. But, we rarely think of healthy stress – eustress – the kind that ignites creativity and productivity. More often, ours is distress, which to paraphrase the writer Fiona Wood, is like a jar with the lid screwed on too tight, and inside the jar, angry pickles fermenting and about to explode. Another writer, Danzae Pace, calls stress the trash of modern life, which if not disposed of, will pile up and take over.
People from all workplaces, levels and backgrounds experience stress. And by far, the major source of that unhealthy stress is their jobs.
Job stress is pervasive, but employers and employees themselves may fail to recognize it or may accept it as a cost of living and doing business. However, job stress exacts an enormous price from society and U.S. employers over and above the reported 120,000 yearly deaths attributable to workplace stress.
Workplace stress also accounts for up to $190 billion in annual U.S. health care costs, according to a 2015 Forbes article. Employers also absorb an estimated $300 billion annually because of accidents, absenteeism, turnover, reduced productivity and workers’ compensation claims.
Managing health care cost is a key concern of employers of all sizes. Some major companies are taking note – General Motors famously now spends more on health care than on steel.
The Employee Assistance Program provider Compsych lists the main causes of job stress as workload, people issues, finding work/life balance, and job insecurity. In today’s workforce, employees frequently feel they have little control and increasing demands.
Nashville has certainly not escaped this “stress epidemic,” as it has been deemed by the World Health Organization. A recent study released by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce found that:
“The city’s rates of physical inactivity, stress and smoking foreshadow an era in which the workforce may not be fit enough to keep business operating at high levels of output.
Nashville is set to lose more workers to retirement than it gains, placing increased importance on maintaining the wellness of people in the workforce.
Demands on employees are increasing, and the Nashville lifestyle means people are sitting in cars in traffic, which builds stress and inactivity into every workday.”
On Tuesday, May 16, at Paradigm Group’s third annual Workplace Wellbeing Conference, nearly 200 Middle Tennessee business owners, HR leaders and executives gathered to discuss the impacts and importance of investing in employee stress management programs as a part of a well-rounded workplace wellbeing program. The interactive conference featured three keynote speakers who shared innovative solutions for assessing, reducing and managing stress in the workplace to support employee health, increase productivity and cut health care costs.
Cigna-HealthSpring’s senior medical director, Mike Edgeworth, MD, set the tone for the day by asking the audience if they’d experienced workplace stress. More than 85 percent of Paradigm Group’s Wellbeing Conference attendees reported feeling significant stress at work within the last month.
Keynote speaker Jim Porter, president of Stressstop.com, shared that in the U.S., we don’t talk about stress in the workplace, even though it is the root cause of many other unhealthy habits like overeating, drinking and smoking. Stress is often seen as the responsibility of the employee and not the employer. Porter encouraged attendees to “put stress first, instead of last.”
Finally, Laurel Mellin, PhD, founder of Emotional Brain Training, a neuroscience-based solution to stress, shared that identifying and understanding one’s current emotional state is the key to successfully managing stress and building resilience in moments of stress.
So, how can employers help reduce workplace stress?
Introduce wellness programs: Traditional employer approaches to tackling health care costs are plan design changes, premium contributions and wellness programs that provide incentives to encourage healthy lifestyle choices. Wellness initiatives are increasingly focusing on stress management, since unhealthy stress is associated with increased heart disease, obesity and substance abuse.
Adjust workplace culture: Interventions that consider the workplace environment – the quality of supervision, whether there are fair and clearly communicated policies and sufficient materials to get the job done, and the degree to which the culture supports respectful interaction among management and employees – are a powerful way to mitigate unhealthy workplace stress.
Assess your employees’ stress levels: Employers will do well to assess the stress levels of their employees by identifying strengths and weaknesses, provide opportunities for learning stress management techniques, and strive for a culture that channels stress into productivity. Remember it is important to assess from the individual level and the management level, as well, to design your stress management program from the ground up.
At Paradigm Group, we want to have a continual conversation about the importance of a healthy workplace in the Nashville community. Less stressed, happier employees mean more productive, healthier businesses.