Stress….. it permeates our lives. Even if we take away the tragic events
of September 11, the economic decline and the troubles in the Middle East
---- we still would be leading very stressful lives.
And, this stress is taking its toll on workers at all levels of an organization.
Consider these statistics:
- In a 2002 poll conducted by Robert Half International Inc., executives
reported that they work an average of 51 hours each week. Nearly half (46
percent) said their time spent on the job has increased compared to five
- In a survey conducted in 2002, 77% of executives polled by OfficeTeam
said that the average employee is at least somewhat overburdened. One in
10 said that the workload was significantly too heavy.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60% to
70% of all disease and illness is stress-related.
- An estimated 75% to 90% of visits to physicians are stress related.
- According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association,
60% of women surveyed said work stress was their biggest problem.
- Job pressures cause more health complaints than any other stressor, says
the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
- The CCH 2002 Unscheduled Absence Survey found that while illness (32
percent) is still the leading cause of absences from work, stress (12 percent)
was a key factor as well. (In a 1995 survey, stress was cited as the cause
of absence by only 6 percent of employees.)
These statistics are telling us that Corporate America --- employees and
executives alike --- are feeling stressed and overworked. Just think about
the 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, chirping cell phones, late night emails,
single parent households, increased organized activities for kids, and an
uncertain economy. But, is all this stress really that bad?
Not all stress (which is defined as nothing more than the reaction to change)
is bad. In fact, some stress is good. Positive stress, or eustress, is often
reflected in a confident attitude and superior performance. Athletes, for
instance, use it to "get up" for a big game, but all of us feel its effect;
when we're under pressure, we experience heightened energy and motivation
levels that enable use to function at our optimum. A certain amount of stress
also makes life interesting. With too little stimulation, we tend to become
bored and frustrated.
On the other hand, too much stress pushes us into overdrive. It's not unlike
the strings on a violin; when they're too loose, the sound they make is poor;
too tight, and the string breaks. "Stress can be the spice of life," says
Dr. Mark Ketterer, a clinical psychologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit,
"or the kiss of death." It's the latter that we need to be worried about.
And, making sure it's not the kiss of death is why employers need to take
proactive measures to help employees manage their stress. Doing so is the
compassionate thing to do ---- and helping employees handle stress well is
also a business leadership issue.
- It helps to decrease direct costs. Research shows that employees
who cope with stress effectively cost firms $3400 a year less in health care
expenses than do highly-stressed employees. This is particularly important
in light of the predicted 13% to 20% increase in annual health care insurance
rates next year. Chronic stress influences health costs directly (by triggering
a heart attack) and indirectly (by causing people to smoke, eat poorly and
- It helps increase productivity & competitiveness. Studies show
employees who cope with stress well are more productive, have higher morale,
participate more effectively as team players, make better decisions, and
are absent less often than highly-stressed individuals. Productivity is lost
when highly-stressed workers are absent from work (absenteeism), but it is
also lost when stressed-out workers are physically at work but not mentally
- It helps with employee retention. When an organization creates
an environment in which stress becomes an ally instead of the enemy, it is
better able to attract and retain top-quality employees. According to the
Kepner-Tregoe Report, "Highly-stressed employees are prone to leave. Losing
an employee can cost more than $100,000. The connection between stress, employee
loyalty and profitability is unassailable."
It's Stress Management --- Not Stress Reduction
I work with many companies on their employee wellness efforts. One thing
I've learned is that we cannot avoid stress, but we can manage it. We should
not react to stress, but to respond to it.
It is not possible to remove the stressors from modern life and business
because stress is a natural by-product of change, and change is constant.
That is why smart companies and leaders provide workers with the tools they
need --- not to eliminate change and stress --- but to handle stress effectively.
A good example of how this works comes from a wellness program I did for
a large bank in Washington State. Surveys at the beginning of the program
told us that 96% of employees had too much stress in their lives and 88% said
they had difficulty coping with it. Surveys at the end of the program found
that 96% said they still had too much stress in their lives. But only 21%
said they had difficulty coping with it. This illustrates a win for the workers
and one for the company as well.
To help your employees (and yourself) manage their stress levels, offer
them these suggestions:
- Take time out for a walk: The key to handling stress lies in learning
how to produce a relaxation response to offset the stress response. Anything
you can do to relax your mind and body on a regular basis will enhance your
chances of managing stress in your life. Take a walk, read a book, listen
to music… the list of ideas goes on and on.
- Focus on concerns not worries: While a worry is immune to direct
action, a concern is a problem that can be addressed or a situation that
can be changed. For example, if an employee is habitually late for work it
can be a concern. It's a problem, but it can be addressed with a simple action
such as encouraging the employee to set the alarm clock for 15 minutes earlier.
- Expect the unexpected: Build a cushion into your day for the unexpected.
Instead of cramming your schedule, fill it 80%, leaving 20% for traffic jams,
family illness and other surprises.
- Tranquilize with exercise: Frequent exercisers have more positive
moods and less anxiety than those who exercise little or not at all. In one
study, researchers found that after 30 minutes on a treadmill, people scored
25% lower on anxiety tests and exhibited favorable changes in brain activity.
"The relationship is clear across the board," says psychologist Thomas Stephen,
"The more you exercise, the better your mood is and the less likely you are
to be anxious or depressed."
- Laugh: According to Dr. William F. Fry, Jr., of the Stanford School
of Medicine, a good laugh --- like a good workout --- produces an overall
sense of well-being. Laughter flexes the muscles of the chest and abdomen
and causes deep breathing to take place. By exercising the shoulder, neck
and face, it releases tension in the muscles.
- Breathe deeply: Deep breathing can be used as a calming technique
in response to a stressful situation, or it can be practiced regularly as
a stress preventive, done once or twice a day to break tension's hold.
- Get enough sleep: A nationwide survey by the National Sleep Foundation
found that 44% of Americans reported trouble falling asleep, 48% said they
wake in the night too often, and 50% said they wake up feeling unrefreshed.
Sure, stress will always be a part of our lives. But, those who learn how
to take a deep breath, who get out and exercise, or who just laugh at a good
joke every now and then will be well on their way managing the stresses they
face …. and to healthy living.