Workplace Stress: Facts and Fictions

The first of a six-part series on reducing workplace stress

by Jen Butler

Man at work stressed out as another man stands over him

Heavy workloads, team conflicts, miscommunications, struggles to balance work and home, and job insecurity — it’s no wonder we’ve come to believe that workplace stress is inevitable. That first fiction, that workplace stress is inevitable, leads us to a second: Stress is something we simply have to live with. In fact, if we want to succeed in our jobs, we have to learn how to handle stress. Finally, if we are looking for ways to alleviate the stress in our lives, we are bombarded by countless enthusiasts who insist they have the one true cure for stress — and if we don’t like that cure, we’re doomed.

The Truth about Stress

With so many myths circulating about stress, it’s more than time to look at a few hard facts:

  • Stress is not inevitable, but it is increasing. COVID-19 plunged us into fears around a new disease, unemployment and food insecurity. A study by the CDC compared similar populations from June 2019 and June 2020 for symptoms of anxiety, depression and strain. Anxiety disorders rose from 8.1% in 2019 to 25.5% in 2020; depressive disorders tripled (from 6.5% to 24.3%; and mental strain rose from 30.9% to 40.9%. 
  • Workplace stress is life-altering at all levels of an organization. According to a recent Yale School of Management study, high exposure to very stressful situations reduced a CEO’s lifespan by at least 10 years. Moreover, 80% of second-level executives identify themselves as burned out. Finally, a 2018 survey by Wrike found that in both small and large companies, the major contributor to employee stress was poor communication.
  • Workplace stress is too costly to ignore. According to the American Psychological Association, stress causes U.S. businesses, at a minimum, $300 billion a year, a figure that would certainly be revised upward during crises like the Boeing 737 Max airplane failure or the pandemic. A Gallup poll found that 51% of stressed employees are disengaged, and a Colonial Life poll found that 41% are less productive. Stress compromises customer service, causes distractions that lead to costly errors, increases absenteeism and hurts the company image among future employees and customers.

The Individuality of Stress

One size does not fit all. We are each susceptible to different triggers for stress. One person may shrug off a friend’s insensitive joke or the failure of a pet project or even a “happy” event like a promotion; another finds it intolerable. Our go-to responses to stress also vary wildly, through every stage from total withdrawal to anger and even violence. 

Stress itself has three components. It may be psychological, the stress we put on ourselves by our way of thinking; physiological, those things we do to our body that are unhealthy (such as sitting at a desk for hours without a break); and situational, brought on by events, activities, and situations in our daily life (such as interpersonal conflict). It may be triggered by any one or any combination of those components or all three together.

The Options Available

The same stress-reduction techniques may make perfect sense for some of us but only add to the stress of the rest. Many so-called team-building events have that effect — not everyone bonds happily over bungee jumping. Moreover, we each learn at a different pace and need time to absorb, practice and embrace new ways of responding to stress. 

The options for dealing with stress fall broadly into four categories:

  • Health. When we exercise too much or too little, sleep too much or too little, and fail to take opportunities to rest and relax, we put stress upon our health. A failure to protect our health may also be a clue to underlying problems. For example, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, teeth grinding, arthritic pain and allergies may all interfere with sleep. By staying within healthy parameters, we give our bodies time to repair and rejuvenate and our minds a chance to make creative connections that fizzle out among the constant interruptions and challenges of daily life. Restoring health begins with a visit to a physician, followed by learning specific techniques to overcome physical and emotional challenges.
  • Habits. Self-medicating and self-soothing behaviors often emerge when we are stressed. Cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and sugar are among the items we turn to when we ignore stress or refuse to deal with it. The stress trigger becomes a cue (“I can’t think straight”), which leads to a routine (“I have to get away from here”) and provides the soothing reward (“I’ll go out for a smoke”). Habits may be broken and rebuilt when we understand the cue/routine/reward cycle and how to make the cycle work to our benefit.
  • Mindfulness. Our minds are tricky—they may constantly ruminate about the past, worry about the future or shut down in an effort to find temporary relief. They are seldom here, in the moment. Mindfulness brings us back to the here and now, and to appreciation and gratitude for what we have. It breaks the stress of always thinking about what might have been, what might happen and what we cannot have. Among mindfulness activities are visualization, focused breathing, practices like qigong and yoga, and distractions like counting your steps as you walk (rather than revisiting your anger once again, for example). 
  • Skills. No one teaches us how to be a team member or leader at work or, for that matter, a partner or parent at home. The skills we need to communicate well, deal with conflict, avoid discriminatory behavior, foster productivity and engagement, and so on can be learned — and once learned, they reduce our workplace stress considerably. Even mentor relationships benefit from professional advice on giving and receiving mentoring. “I know how to handle this” is a very satisfying feeling.

Overcoming Reluctance

With all the various techniques, programs and experts at our disposal, why do we hesitate to deal with stress? In addition to the belief that stress is inevitable, that ignoring it is laudable and that bowing to it is a moral failure, we face the stigma associated with any referral to a doctor, mental health practitioner or coach. 

That stigma may find its roots in a desire to be perfect, harnessed to a secret conviction that we are far from perfect and therefore need to hide anything we consider a weakness. It may also arise from a desire to transform ourselves into something we aren’t — thinner, smarter, more successful, more in command — leading us to try paths that compromise our physical, mental and emotional health. We may also simply be afraid. What part of ourselves will we lose during meditation? How much respect will we lose if anyone finds out we are addicted to stimulants? What if we are expected to do more and be better when we are already struggling?

This reluctance is in itself a source of stress. However, there are practitioners out there who will meet us where we are; offer a range of options; and provide the time, resources and skills needed to deal with stress. We do need to deal with it. The personal, organizational and social costs of stress are simply way too high.  

Jen Butler, CEO of JB Partners, is the creator of Get SMaRT – Stress Management and Resilience Training for the workplace. Her SMaRT Club learning platform is the leading self-guided tool for all companies looking to reduce stress and increase profits. Butler also travels throughout the United States to provide business leaders with one-on-one, onsite guidance in managing stress; turning around their business; and achieving real, long-lasting results.

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