There’s plenty of scientific evidence that sheds light on the relationship between the level of employee stress and productivity in the workplace — chances are, when the former goes up, the latter falls.

Costs of employee stress: It’s not just dollars and cents

The United Nations International Labour Organisation has placed a figure to the costs of employee stress on organisations, stating that the total costs of occupational stress are estimated to be a whopping US$200 billion each year. Employees experiencing high levels of stress cost the organisation about 40 percent more than those with moderate stress levels, and lost productivity that arises from insomnia may cost companies US$3,156 per employee.

It’s not all dollars and cents; costs incurred by companies go beyond these quantitative measures. A study conducted by Sloan Work & Family Research revealed that employees who often felt overworked indicated that they were 20 percent more likely to make mistakes on the job.

In addition, high stress levels give rise to employee disengagement. In the Global Benefits Attitudes study conducted by Towers Watson, more than half (57 percent) of all employees surveyed reported that they were disengaged. This may pose a significant problem to employers as disengaged employees are likely to display behaviours that adversely impact workplace morale. Such behaviours are likely contagious and the negative effects of stress may spread around in the organisation if steps are not taken to address the issue.

What are the causes of employee stress?

This question was explored in the survey by Towers Watson; 53 percent of employees surveyed named inadequate staffing as the main cause of workplace stress. Employee stress can also be attributed to factors like job insecurity, poor feedback channels, unconducive work environment, role conflict and ambiguity, as well as interpersonal relationships problems in the workplace.

When you reduce employee stress in your organisation…

Productivity levels and staff morale are two aspects that will be directly impacted when employee stress is reduced. This fact has been measured quantitatively – a study conducted in 2014 by the University of Warwick indicated that employees who consider themselves to be happy are 12 percent more productive. Companies also benefit from a reduction in the rate of turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism among employees.

A fall in employee stress levels also translates into cost savings for your business. This is highlighted in the Towers Watson 2012 study; companies that implemented effective corporate wellness strategies revealed savings in annual health care costs that amount to US$1,000 per employee. Sum up the figures, and you’ll realise that a sizable cost advantage can be achieved. For example, a company with a headcount of 5,000 employees will chalk up a total of $5 million in savings.

Strategies to reduce employee stress

1. Going Zen: Bring mindfulness to your employees

Introducing mindfulness into the organisation is a strategy that is increasingly adopted by companies all around the world. It’s more than just a passing trend; corporate giants, such as Apple, Google and Nike have incorporated the practice of meditation as part of their employee wellness initiatives. At General Mills, practices and activities that promote mindfulness have been carried out within the organisation for at least a decade. Search Inside Yourself, an initiative that started out as a course for Google employees, is now a program adopted by organisations around the world.

Mindfulness programs differ across companies. Employees at Nike are provided with amenities such as relaxation rooms that they can use to take a nap, make their prayers or meditate. Meditation and yoga classes are also offered on-site, so employees do not need to leave the office compounds to engage in these practices. Similar initiatives are offered at Apple — employees may choose to attend meditation and yoga classes conducted on-site. In addition, employees are offered the use of a meditation room, and are allowed to take thirty minutes for meditation at work each day.

2. Preventive measure VS. reactive strategy: Introducing resilience training programs

Training, educational courses and webinars are elements that make up resilience training programs. Coaching is provided on a range of topics, such as mental awareness, developing an exercise routine, getting sufficient sleep, learning how to identify causes of stress, and discovering how to keep calm and maintain control during times of difficulties.

You might think, “Well, this sounds pretty similar to traditional stress management courses that are already in place” But, there is a difference — resilience programs are implemented  as a preventive, rather than as a reactive measure. These courses are conducted with the aim of equipping employees with the skills and knowledge that they need to manage stress before overwhelm impacts productivity or workplace culture.

Companies, like IBM, ComPsych and Aetna have seen the benefits of incorporating such programs. Employees who have participated in Aetna’s Mindfulness at Work program experienced an average reduction in stress levels of 28 percent. The organisation has also noted improvements in the health of its staff, and observed a fall in healthcare costs among employees facing a high stress level.

3. Modernise your HR policies

If your organisation isn’t operating HR 2.0, it’s time to give your HR policies a review. Certain aspects, such as allowing for greater flexibility at work and improving on feedback management are instrumental in alleviating the stress faced by your employees. Tap on the rising popularity of remote work concepts (think co-working and digital nomad) by allowing your employees the flexibility of working out of the office on a long-term basis, and work on incorporating processes that allow for instant and ongoing feedback between individuals and teams.

It’s important to ensure that your HR policies are aligned with the goals of your stress management program. Develop a policy that offers clear directions, expectations and measures that your company will take to ameliorate issues of workplace stress. Employees should also be provided with community resources that will aid them in managing their stress, such as the Mental Health Helpline or Here to Help.

But keep in mind…

If you want to promote a work environment that will help to reduce the stress levels of your employees, it is critical that you and your management team understand the underlying causes of stress in the company. Without this understanding, efforts and resources may be wasted on investments in the wrong aspects, despite the best of intentions.

    Globetrekker Challenge is a corporate health technology company for employee health engagement and HR data analytics. By integrating multiple features across wellness, technology and social, Globetrekker Challenge creates robust outcomes to improve employee retention, performance and culture.

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