Stress at work seems like a given — there’s a reason they call it “work” and not “an all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas.” American workers, though, are far more stressed than they should be, and it’s affecting both their health and their job performance.
The Mayo Clinic has identified numerous health problems stemming from stress, including headaches, muscle tension, upset stomachs, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse and anger. Obviously, under those conditions it’s difficult to do quality work, which is why oftentimes an unfocused, irritable, unproductive workforce can be attributed to stress. While any workplace will have some inherent stress — not all of it from the job itself — there are many ways for employers to lower stress among their employees. Here are five good places to start.
1. Clearly Define Workplace Roles
Who knew a job description could improve mental health in the workplace? Research has found that knowing where your responsibilities begin and end can reduce stress. It takes the guesswork out of doing the day-to-day job. Sometimes managers hesitate to do this, relying too much on the standard job description line of “other duties as required.” While that will always be necessary for emergencies, the vast majority of tasks can be clearly defined — and managers should put real effort into doing just that.
2. Bring In Well-Trained Managers
Many managers learn how to manage on the fly, and it’s common for them to base their managing styles on how their own managers acted in the past. In other words, one bad manager can spoil a whole generation.
Calm, competent leaders who understand the needs of those under them tend to create a relaxed but productive work environment. Management can make or break a work culture, and a well-managed workforce could see a drastic reduction in overall stress.
3. Institute Zero-Tolerance Policies
Your workplace should never foster an environment open to sexual harassment, racial discrimination or bullying in general. You may think that as long as no one is complaining, the off-color jokes and teasing are fine, but they could be causing serious amounts of stress. In the workplace, employees behave professionally. Period. This will also reduce your risk of encountering a lawsuit, making this a win-win best practice.
4. Enforce Vacation Time
Instead of a use-it-or-lose-it vacation program, have a you-must-use-it policy. Everyone needs to take time off during the year to step away from work. When employees do take time off, let it actually be time off — that means informing workers that they should avoid answering emails and taking work calls if at all possible. Workplace stress can build up during vacations just as much as during a normal 9-to-5 workday, and employees often return from time off more burned out and less productive than they were before they left. Decompression time can make a huge difference in your employees’ performance. Train your managers to promote vacation and be supportive when employees need to say, “See you in a week.”
5. Set Schedules
For many hourly jobs, schedules can change from week to week. While it would be impossible to have the same schedule for the rest of time, make an effort to set schedules as far in advance as possible, and be as consistent as possible. If Jane is the one who opens, she should always have the morning shift. Not only will the consistency get her into a productive rhythm, but it will also help her balance her outside obligations. Child care is difficult — and stressful — to find when you don’t know what your schedule will look like from week to week. So is making and keeping doctors’ appointments.
These are all straightforward and effective methods for reducing stress at work, but look to your own unique employees to determine what they need. Understand that home-life and work-life stress spill into each other. If someone is going through a rough patch in their marriage, for instance, they’ll likely bring that anxiety to work. For cases like this, an employee assistance program can help with counseling. Every employee has their own personal stressors, so explore all of your options — generous health benefits, dependent care spending accounts and even a weekly free lunch can reduce stress in the workplace.
It’s worth your time to help your employees feel comfortable in their jobs — you’ll see the difference in their performance. Happy employees, satisfied bosses and blissful HR. Feel that sensation coming from deep in your chest? That’s the beginning of a giant sigh of relief.
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