Earlier this week, we shared the overall recommendations from Gallup’s CEO Jon Clifton coming out of their annual State of the Global Workplace report. Today, I want to dive into one specific area of the data: Stress.
Stress is something that affects everyone. If you want some anecdotal evidence, simply google “stress memes” and you’ll find endless jokes about how common stress is in our everyday lives, such as these gems:
(More stress memes can be found here if you want to feel even more seen)
While some level of stress is a part of everyday life, not every type of stress is as negatively impacting as others, and more and more of us have been feeling the weight of it at work, especially. If you’re one of those people, you’re not alone. According to Gallup, even though employee engagement and job opportunities surged globally by recovering back into line with pre-pandemic trends, global worker stress remained at a historic high*. This is especially interesting, considering that other negative emotions related to the COVID-19 pandemic subsided.
So, what’s going on here and what can we do about it?
Well, some aspects of our everyday stress are out of the control of most managers and organizational leaders. Things like inflation, geopolitical instability, family health, and trends toward political polarization have certainly impacted many employees across the globe. And certainly, some areas have been hit harder than others, such as East Asia, which tied the US & Canada atop the list of regions with the highest stress levels in the world. So, we cannot pin all of the blame on employers for their employees’ stress levels. However, with the percentage of our days & weeks that we’re spending at work, it’s also hard to argue that work has an even small impact on our stress levels.
The Potential Effects of Long-Term Stress on Your People
“By the time I’m done with work, I’m so exhausted that some days I don’t have the energy to hold a conversation. So, over time, I’ve had family [and] friends accuse me of not being socially receptive when they try to reach out.”
– IREGUME, 27, Consultant, Nigeria*
A little stress in our lives can typically be processed and moved past relatively quickly. For example, think about your commute to work. Let’s say you have a roughly 45-minute trek in each direction between home and work. Imagine that you left home at the usual time that would get you to work about 15 minutes early.
Now, imagine that about 20 minutes into your journey, there is a massive delay. If you drive or take the bus to work, there is a huge car wreck blocking all lanes of traffic, forcing you to re-route to a much slower and more crowded set of streets. If you take the train, perhaps the previous train had mechanical issues and is stopped right in the middle of its route, blocking all of the trains behind it until it can get repaired. As the time ticks up and up, eating away your 15-minute buffer, your internal stress grows and grows.
Then, you jump into solution mode. You begin calling your boss/clients/first meeting of the day participants to let them know the situation. They let you know that things will be fine and just to get to the office safely whenever you can.
Boom. A large level of that stress begins melting away.
Next, the wreckage/train cars begin clearing from your path just before you hit the 15-minute delay mark. Things start moving normally again and you are going to make it just in time to make your first calls/meetings of the day. Even more stress dissipates.
Finally, you reach work just in the nick of time and you are welcomed by your coworkers and managers that are just happy you made it safely. Within 15 minutes of arriving at work, the stress that had been all-consuming less than an hour ago is a distant memory.
Now, imagine you had that feeling of intense stress you experienced before jumping into solution mode, but it never went away. It followed you throughout the entire day of work. Would you have been operating at your best during meetings, calls, pitches, or even in your solo heads-down time? Probably not. And even if by some miracle you were able to power through all day, how would you feel once you got home? Probably pretty similar to the woman quoted at the beginning of this session. You’d likely be drained. Like a zombie--unable to connect with anyone or anything else important in your life until you got some much-needed rest. But what if every day was like that? Do you think you’d ever truly catch up on that rest? What would the impact be on your work? Your relationships? Your overall quality of life? My guess is that every area of your life would be impacted. You would burn out. The only thing you could do would be to leave the situation that is, if not causing your stress, at the very least not helping ease it.
While that may sound extreme to you, that is an unfortunate reality for many employees globally. Gallup states that 44% of employees said they experienced stress a lot of the previous day, repeating the record high in 2021 and continuing a trend of elevated stress that began almost a decade earlier (and remember, that’s the average. East Asia, the US, and Canada are actually higher at 52% each).*
So, what can we do about it?
While we certainly can’t control if there are vehicular obstacles on our employees’ route to work, there is actually one major thing that we can do to help reduce their stress, and it isn’t what you’d likely expect:
What’s one way that we can reduce stress in the workplace? Increase employee engagement.
Gallup defines employee engagement as, “the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.” And according to their report, Gallup found that 30% of engaged employees felt stress a lot of the previous day, while 56% of actively disengaged employees felt stress a lot of yesterday –that’s nearly double!!
So, while the temptation might be to simply take items off of employees’ plates to help ease stress, that may not necessarily be the answer (or at least, the entire answer). Investing in building leaders and managers who are actively engaged with and invested in their team members throughout the organization is way more likely to have an impact on stress reduction at work than any other approach. Why is this the solution? Roughly 70% of team engagement is tied to an employee's experience with their boss or manager.*
Key Takeaway: When things are feeling stressful and tense in your work culture, it might be a sign that we are focusing too much on task accomplishment and not enough on investing in and developing our internal leaders.
What has your organization done to successfully reduce stress in the past? Comment below and share your experience!
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* Data and quotes pulled from Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 report