Decrease workplace stress with a more relaxing, healthier environment

Stress is a critical health issue most employees face at work. It has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization.

According to the American Institute of Stress, it costs American businesses up to $300 billion a year.

“Stress in the workplace has become a significant issue for many businesses,” says Amber Hulme, Medical Mutual regional vice president for Central Ohio. “Beyond the health care costs involved, employers see a loss of productivity, absenteeism, turnover and disengagement. That’s why it’s important to educate employees about how to manage their stress.”

Smart Business spoke with Hulme about how a stressed workforce can affect your bottom line and what organizations can do to help employees reduce, or at least manage, their stress to make themselves healthier, happier and more productive at work.

Why is stress such a problem in the workplace?

Clinical research suggests that stress is an underlying factor in at least 70 percent of all visits to family doctors, and 30 percent of employer disability claims are behavioral in nature.

Most employers advocate a healthy work/life balance, but in today’s work culture it can be challenging to really put the philosophy into practice. If it’s a priority for supervisors and upper management, however, it can really make a difference.

What activities have been shown to help?

For most people, stress management starts with a healthy lifestyle. Exercise, in particular, can be very effective when it comes to reducing stress levels at work. Employee wellness activities, such as paying for a portion of employees’ gym memberships or running group-wide healthy eating challenges, are good ways to help employees unwind and feel better.

Programs don’t need to be overly complicated or regimented. The process can be as simple as organizing a regular walking group or exercise program. Then it can grow from there.

Medical Mutual, for example, will help organizations develop and implement stress reduction programs that offer employees access to personal health coaches and online options for virtual coaching.

How important is flexibility?

When possible, enabling employees to work remotely or have a flexible schedule has proven to be good for morale. This sort of approach demonstrates trust and allows employees to manage their own time.

It also helps to remove extra stressors that working parents, for example, might face — worrying about child care, sick days or doctor’s appointments.

Of course, it’s important to set clear parameters for employees and make sure they understand exactly what is permitted. It can be challenging for some organizations, but it can have a very positive effect.

What about environmental factors?

That can make a big difference, too. For many employees, their surroundings can have a significant effect on their productivity and overall job satisfaction — both of which factor into stress levels.

Organizations might consider brightening the color scheme, adding a few plants or hanging some artwork. It’s also sometimes helpful to have a space where employees can get away for a few minutes. When employees have the ability to break away, even for a short time, it can help boost their productivity for the rest of the workday.

What else should employers know?

Communication is critical. Managers should be encouraged to be as open and transparent with their employees as possible. When you keep employees informed, it can dramatically decrease their levels of stress and anxiety.

In addition to relieving stress caused by the unknown, having an open dialogue makes employees more likely to share their own concerns, ideas and thoughts. And that will often create a healthier — and less stressed — culture throughout the organization.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Medical Mutual