Color & Control:

Workplace Stress: What You Need to Know

By Paula Allen

If you have experienced stress in your life, you are not alone. Whether the result of an unexpected trauma or increased workload, one thing that is for certain is that all individuals
will experience stress to some degree throughout their lives. And while most people experience stress in waves—with some instances passing in a matter of hours—serious problems arise when people are subjected to high levels of stress on a regular basis, putting them at risk for physical and mental health issues.

What does the research say?

The results of an annual research study on mental health in the workplace, revealed by HR services provider Morneau Shepell at its “Employers Connect” events across Canada earlier this year, found that a third of employees report being more stressed from work (35 per cent) and personal issues (36 per cent) now than they were five years ago.

One of the main contributors to stress today is isolation—the state of feeling alone and without friends, support or help. The research, which polled employees and people managers, revealed that both employees (64 per cent) and managers (73 per cent) reporting high workplace isolation are more likely to say they have a high level of workplace stress.

A contributor to mental and physical health

Stress is often thought to have a short-term effect on personal well-being, but this is not always the  case. The research found that employees enduring high levels of stress are likely to suffer from significant issues such as physical pain and sleep troubles. Interestingly, physical symptoms were the most common first sign of stress, with close to half of employees (44 per cent) and managers (42 per cent) feeling physically unwell when stressed.

These issues are carrying over into workplace. Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of employees suffering from personal pain and almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of employees with sleep problems indicated that these issues have a negative impact on workplace stress. This becomes a damaging cycle when taking into consideration how employees feel at work. In addition, employees who did not feel valued at work were far more likely to report taking time off work because of physical pain or sleep issues.

How you can help

Employers and health professionals can play a crucial role in helping employees by identifying early signs of stress and prioritizing factors that constitute a mentally well workplace. These include:

• destigmatizing support by making it visible and accessible
• connecting employees to others in the organization to address isolation and stress
• supporting each employee with a personalized set of resources
• building a welcoming culture of recognition

In most workplaces, several resources to help deal with stress are available to employees and managers through their workplace health benefits plan. These might include a cognitive behavioural therapy program, which connects employees with dedicated counsellors who provide clinical expertise tailored to each individual, delivered in real-time through a digital platform; and employee and family assistance programs, which are designed to provide employees with 24/7, confidential counselling support for all emotional (e.g., anxiety, stress management) and everyday (e.g., legal, financial) concerns.

Mental health issues in the workplace are increasing and can have a detrimental impact not only on overall business objectives, but also on a company’s most valuable resource—its employees. Through active engagement and awareness, businesses can work to end the cycle of stress and support employees through healthy well-being.

Paula Allen is vice president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell.

Tips for managing stress

Business can be stressful. This is particularly heightened for small business owners and independent service providers, who take on additional pressures without additional resources to turn to for support. While there are a number of different approaches and techniques to deal with stress, the most important factor is getting ahead of it and proactively looking for ways to remain productive with the increasing pressures of work and everyday life.

Ways to get ahead of stress include:

1 Prioritizing self-care is vital for physical and mental health but is also often the last thing we consider when we get busy – especially when we are working independently. Proactively scheduling “me” time (e.g., deep breathing, a 15-minute walk) will help to manage stress and improve mental health by allowing individuals to temporarily disconnect from daily stressors.

2 Seeking social support by making time for connection with others is a powerful mitigator of stress. From another perspective, lack of meaningful relationships tends to make all stressors more pronounced.

Mindfulness or guided meditation has been shown to reduce stress in an easily-accessible way. Individuals with no corporate workplace programs can use a smartphone app for guided meditation, taking a short period of time each day to fully relax and check in with themselves.

4 Building a perspective, strategy and response to productively deal with stress is a critical skill. Some do this more easily than others, but anyone can acquire this skill. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a proven approach that addresses the continuum by developing resilience to diagnosed mental health conditions. Internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy is a very accessible way of delivering CBT, that fits easily into demanding lives.

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