- Even those who love their jobs can experience workplace stress.
- Workplace stress can impact productivity and employee turnover, and men and women sometimes experience stress differently.
- Managers can create a safer workplace environment by advocating for wellness and setting realistic expectations.
- This article is for small business owners and managers who want to reduce employees' stress in the workplace.
Work is a primary source of stress for many people, even those who love their jobs. In fact, sometimes loving your job makes your experience more stressful; if you care too much about performing perfectly, you can experience burnout.
Aside from job performance concerns, workplace stress factors include interpersonal relationships.
"People are stressed at work due to the people and the tasks," said Dr. Olivia Rose, director of the Rose Health Clinic and medical advisor at Remedy Review. "This includes work colleagues, who may be difficult to get along with or who don't pull their weight, and challenging bosses. The demands and pressures are high. There's competition and tight deadlines to adhere to, which all leads to stress."
We'll look at how stress negatively affects employees and the workplace, as well as ways for owners, managers and employees to mitigate workplace stress.
How stress impacts productivity and employee turnover
Stress isn't an individual problem; employee stress can affect a company's bottom line.
"Stress can damage one's disposition, preventing them from being at their best when at work," said Dominic Harper, founder of Debt Bombshell. "When an employee isn't able to show their best self, their productivity levels tend to drop, and when such happens, their [motivation] to do and finish tasks drops as well."
Here's a look at some of the repercussions of stress in the workplace:
- Workplace stress leads to high turnover. In a 2019 Wrike survey about workplace stress and burnout, 56% of respondents reported searching for a new job due to stress at their current one, 25% quit their job, and 16% threatened to quit. High employee turnover costs your company productivity and money.
- Employees care less about their job due to stress. The Wrike survey reported that 46% of respondents have stopped caring or have checked out of their job due to stress. When an employee stops caring about their job and the work they're doing, productivity plummets. In a 2019 Colonial Life study, 41% of respondents said stress made them less productive, and 33% said stress made them less engaged.
- Employee absences cost employers money. When employees quit a job or take time off due to stress and other related mental health issues, employers have to make up for that. In a Society for Human Resource Management study on the financial impact of employee absences, 75% of respondents said employee absences have a moderate to large impact on productivity and revenue.
- Stress causes other health issues. In the Wrike survey, 54% of respondents reported being unable to sleep due to stress from work, 35% reported losing their temper at work, and 38% reported taking their work stress out on family members and friends. These side effects of workplace stress compound and manifest in lower productivity and higher hostility.
Tip: If you're thinking about a career change to reduce stress, check out our list of the 10 most and least stressful jobs so you can choose the right career path for you.
The gender difference
A 2018 Unum study found that 54% of working women experience stress daily or weekly, compared with 47% of men. An August 2021 LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index report also recorded drastic differences in work-related stress levels between men and women. Factors that explain this disparity include money and how women and men experience stress.
Money plays a part.
Marc Lewis, executive editor of Remedy Review, said money could be an important factor in how gender impacts workplace stress. Men, for example, could be more likely to leave a job that's too stressful, while women may be more inclined to remain at a company.
"Maybe men are OK giving up money for less stress because they think they can get it back in the long run, where a woman may feel compelled to hold on to the gains she's made," Lewis said.
Men and women may think and act differently in the same situations.
Christine Agro, bestselling author and business coach, believes women aren't as linear in their thinking as men.
"Women tend to take in the whole picture and recognize that more money doesn't mean better quality of life or [that they'll be] happier," Agro said. She recognizes that this is a generalization, but as a business coach, she sees more women than men walk away from high-paying jobs to work on something more meaningful and rewarding, even if it pays less.
The LinkedIn report noted that women are more likely to take action regarding their burdens. According to the report, women are more likely than men to plan and take time off, take breaks during the day, end work at reasonable hours, not check into work after hours, turn down extra responsibilities, and use their mental health benefits.
Men and women have similar stressors, but the intensity varies.
In the LinkedIn study, 40% of working women reported that not having enough time in the day to get everything done was in their top three stressors, but only 35% of working men reported that same stressor in their top three.
Women also ranked the other three main stressors – inability to stop working after hours, concern about COVID-19 exposure from work, and pressures to return to a physical workplace – as more stress-inducing than men did.
How managers can reduce employee stress in the workplace
There are several ways business owners and managers can consciously mitigate some elements of employee stress.
1. Create a safe work environment.
Harper said a safe working environment isn't just a place with top security equipment, such as CCTV and access control systems. A safe environment should extend to employees' mental health as well.
Harper recommends using a "safe word" to give employees a tool to de-escalate a crisis. "Make sure employees have a safe word they can use to prevent chaos from escalating in the workplace," he advised. "If an employee feels unsafe or is mentally stressed about something, they can [say] this safe word, so others will know that someone is feeling mentally unsafe."
When a crisis is de-escalated, and employees remain respectful of each others' boundaries, it becomes easier to navigate a solution in a calmer environment.
2. Advocate for wellness.
An employee health and wellness plan that incorporates healthy options and initiatives can help prevent fatigue, illness and burnout while showing how much you care for your employees.
"Managers should advocate for workplace wellness," said Dan Ni, CEO of Messaged Inc. "The environment is the top contributor to stress and should be revamped by managers."
One component of workplace wellness is a reasonable paid time off (PTO) policy, which reduces employee turnover and shows your team how much you value them. A remote work option can also be a part of a workplace wellness initiative, as long as you have an engaged remote workforce.
"Remote work with flexible hours should be advocated as a viable option, as it increases productivity and reduces worker pressure," Ni said.
Managers can also demonstrate and advocate for self-care in a physical sense. "Incorporating self-care at work is important," Rose said. "Set a timer and get up each hour to stretch, get water, or take a washroom break. Pack healthy lunches instead of eating out all the time, and cut coffee. Stress management begins with what you put in your body. Coffee makes stress worse by increasing the stress hormone, raising the heart rate, and creating dehydration by stimulating the kidneys." [Read related article: Want to Get More Done at Work? Eat Better]
3. Define and refine job expectations.
Setting clear job expectations can reduce employee stress because it eliminates the ambiguity of deciding whether or not to take on random assignments. Managers should also routinely audit and assess employee workloads to ensure no one is overtaxed.
"If your staff [has] problems managing workloads, and there are too many people attempting the same things in different methods, it's time for a reorganization," said Adam Wood, co-founder of RevenueGeeks. "Perform a skills evaluation of all employees, review and update all job descriptions, establish a uniform onboarding process, and assign work responsibilities to those who are well matched."
Key takeaway: Unrealistic expectations put pressure on workers, leading to confusion about objectives and strategies and creating impossible deadlines.
4. Create training programs.
Wood noted that employees are your most valuable business asset, and you get out of them what you invest into them. Effective employee training tactics that include leadership development goals can show your employees how much you believe in their talent and potential.
"Identify essential personnel who have the capacity to do more, and then help them achieve their goals by providing development programs and educational opportunities," Wood said. "This reduces their tension because they now have the knowledge they need to accomplish an excellent job."
5. Practice open communication.
Both employees and managers can help reduce workplace stress with clear, open communication. If a manager has created an open-door policy and a sense of trust, employees may feel comfortable sharing their concerns.
"Communicate with your boss about how you feel about your role instead of bottling it up inside," Rose advises employees. "Take notes and discuss your concerns with human resources, as well. Getting your concerns off your chest may help you manage stress a bit easier."
No attempt at a stress-free life, at work or at home, will yield miraculous results overnight. Rose advises taking baby steps toward building a less stressful environment.
Tip: If you're stressed about making mistakes on the job, learn how to keep your job and move forward by accepting responsibility, apologizing, and practicing damage control.
Finding healthy ways through stress
"We all feel stress; it's normal," said Chip Munn, managing partner at Signature Wealth Strategies. "By allowing our team to make healthy choices to deal with the daily pressures we face, we can model good choices for them. It's much easier to feel comfortable discussing workplace stress with someone they've seen find healthy ways to work through it."
Workplace stress is inevitable, but employees and managers have choices for handling it. Habits like packing a healthy lunch, taking a break to walk around the office, communicating with your manager or team, or taking a few days to work from home can decrease work stress and contribute to an improved work-life balance.
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.