How employers can minimize mental anguish in the workplace & equip workers with coping skills
by Mark Pew
November 20, 2019

Stress can help one mature after learning a lesson the hard way (“I’m not going to make that mistake again.”). It can help motivate growth and enhance performance, forcing adaptation and creativity, and encouraging new and improved coping skills. In construction, for example, a fear of heights can be positive, as it can create caution and encourage the proper use of safety techniques. When a person is properly equipped and trained, their stress can be reduced and faith in their ability to do the job well can be increased.

However, never-ending stress is a problem. According to ScienceDaily, stress puts the body on constant “alert,” with severe repercussions. From a physical perspective, “chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response.” Stress can also “suppress the immune system,” trigger “severe bronchoconstriction in asthmatics,” increase the risk for diabetes, lead to “peptic ulcers, stress ulcers or ulcerative colitis,” create issues for the heart with “plaque buildup in the arteries,” and maybe even increase the likelihood of cancer, according to the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences. 

From a psychological perspective, chronic stress can create neuroses that can have “a formative role in the onset of neurotic depression (mixed depressive illness) and a precipitating role in schizophrenic episodes” while creating anxiety that impacts performance and emotional well-being. 

So how does stress impact a workplace and its workers? Not surprisingly, they intersect. Although absenteeism is usually characterized by a willful negligence to attend, workplace stress can certainly create valid reasons for it. Whether the reason is unreasonable expectations (long hours, aggressive metrics, shift-work sleep disorder), dangerous or difficult circumstances, disharmonious relationships, frustrating bureaucracy, or perceived incompetence, workers might need a “mental health day” periodically just to deal with the stress of being at work.

The issue of presenteeism—a worker being present but not functioning optimally—can be much more insidious. If the workplace stress level, whether originating there or brought from home by the employee, is so high as to be unmanageable, then it can have a significant negative impact on productivity through lowered attention to detail, quality of work and their team. Adding to this is the natural contagion of stress because, although it may be specifically related to one person, relationship or scenario, it almost always affects others. 

What’s an Employer to Do?

An employer should be responsible for minimizing stress in the workplace through proactive measures. Just as some employers have a “zero defect” policy, employers can likewise target a “zero stress” environment. “Zero” might not be achievable in either situation, but constantly reinforcing the goal heightens awareness to strive for that goal. This awareness can be accomplished through practical policies such as:

  • Creating an open communication channel between management and employees to highlight issues in the workplace that cause undue stress, and then, creating an action plan that shows responsiveness
  • Organizing education on personal stress-management techniques (e.g., a lunch-and-learn on mindfulness or personal finance skills) and wellness programs on topics, such as smoking cessation and nutrition
  • Establishing a highly publicized Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers anonymity
  • Highlighting a management team that exhibits proper stress management in the office, especially in crisis situations 
  • Encouraging workload balancing (on the job) and work/life balancing (at home) by promoting flexible schedules
  • Training management on prompt, proactive conflict resolution techniques and how to eradicate gossip
  • Forming a committee focused on ridding the workplace of undue stress through specific programs and processes 

What’s an Employee to Do?

“Among the factors that influenced the susceptibility to stress,” according to the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, “are genetic vulnerability, coping style, type of personality and social support.” An individual cannot influence or change genetic vulnerability or personality type. However, coping style and social support are constantly influenced by the individual. 

Being better equipped to cope with stress in a productive rather than destructive manner is something that can be learned through experience, mentorship and repetition. Sometimes, psychotherapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Motivation Interviewing, can be helpful for enhancing coping skills.

Choosing a quality social support system is often within an individual’s purview to manage. While disconnecting from toxic relationships and environments can be a painful process, once done, it can be liberating and propellant toward better outcomes.