A Comprehensive Approach to Addressing Workplace Stress

Focus on the workplace factors that contribute to chronic stress. This might involve changing the organizational culture, altering work processes and revising policies to create a less stressful workplace environment.

January 09, 2020

According to research, a combination of approaches aimed at the individual and the workplace are the most successful.

  • Reducing the root causes of stress
  • Training employees to become more resilient to help prevent the negative effects of stress
  • Offering programs and resources that help employees cope with the impact of stress on mind and body

Reduce Root Causes of Stress

Priority #1:
Focus on the workplace factors that contribute to chronic stress. This might involve changing the organizational culture, altering work processes and revising policies to create a less stressful workplace environment.

workplace strategies to reduce chronic stress 
Figure 1: Workplace Strategies to Reduce Chronic Stress

Spotlight on Manager Training

Managers can play an important role in reducing chronic stress; but first their awareness of employees’ emotional health must be increased.

Indicators of workplace stress include:22

  • Work performance: Reduced output, missed deadlines, errors, reduced quality of work
  • Attitude and behavior: Loss of motivation, working longer hours for less return, inconsistent timekeeping, increased smoking/drinking
  • Relationships at work: Conflict, poor relationships, disciplinary problems, withdrawn behavior
  • Health effects: Increased absence and accidents, headaches, tiredness

Manager Toolkits

Several companies have developed toolkits to teach managers how to:

  • Understand what contributes to employee job satisfaction and, alternatively, what contributes to job stress. 
  • Identify individuals who are chronically stressed, and appropriately and sensitively connect them with benefits and resources.
  • Handle an employee returning from a mental health absence.

For more information on leveraging managers, see Seven Ways to Engage Managers in Employee Health and Well-being

Promote Employee Resilience

Priority #2:
Prevent the negative effects of stress (rather than just treating them) by promoting employee resilience. This involves helping employees build or strengthen the factors that contribute to resilience.

What is resilience?

Although there isn’t consensus among researchers on any one definition, many agree that resilience is the capacity to positively adapt in the face of risk and adversity.23

What are the factors that contribute to resilience?

A number of factors play a role in building resilience, including those that shield an individual from the potential negative effects of an event, as well as those that enable people to better cope with adversity.23 Examples include but are not limited to positive affect, positive thinking, behavioral control, family support, and sense of belonging to one’s community.24

Resilience Training

Is resilience training popular among employers?

In 2017, 40% of employers are offering resilience training to employees, with an additional 30% considering this for the future.25 Resilience training gaining traction because it provides a way to help employees maintain their health, productivity and performance during challenging times. Training can be offered in a number of ways:

  • In person (either in an individual - or group-based setting)
  • Through telephonic coaching
  • Through online programs

What’s the evidence?

Studies point to a number of positive outcomes for employees participating in resilience training, including lower levels of stress, depression and negative emotions, as well as improved performance and productivity.26-29 However, it is important to note that a 2015 meta-analysis of 37 studies on workplace resilience programs found that the overall effect of these programs was small and diminished over time. 30 Programs targeting those at greatest risk showed the greatest impact. Programs using a one-on-one delivery format (e.g., coaching) were most effective, followed by classroom format.30

What’s the employer experience?

One organization found that employees participating in the resilience program had improvements in emotion control and burnout.26 Employees also improved their stress management and resilience scores.26 In a validated study of employees using an online resilience program, higher resilience scores were associated with:31

  • Lower perceived stress
  • Lower levels of burnout
  • Higher job satisfaction
  • Lower intent to quit
  • Lower absenteeism and presenteeism

What should I consider if I’m thinking about implementing a resilience program?

Employers should assess the scope of the program, and how that aligns with their organization’s goals. Some programs concentrate solely on building resilience; others are broader (e.g. “happiness programs”), but still may focus on the skills necessary in developing resilience.

Help Employees Manage the Effects of Stress

Priority #3: Help employees reduce the mental and physical manifestations of stress, both in the short and long term, with offerings such as mindfulness training or yoga/tai chi. This might involve giving employees the time and space to relax.

Research shows that the more an individual practices mindfulness and yoga/tai chi, the more benefits they reap.


Mindfulness Training

Is mindfulness training popular among employers?

In 2017, 35% of employers will be offering mindfulness classes or training to employees, with an additional 26% considering for the future.25 It’s catching on among employers due to its potential to improve psychological health and reduce stress symptoms.

How are employers offering mindfulness training?

Employers are offering these classes or trainings in ways that sync with their company’s culture and employee population:

  • Some offer a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, an in-person, group-based program in which a trained professional teaches participants how to meditate over 8-10 weeks.
  • Others provide online programs that teach employees mindfulness skills and/or lead them through mindfulness practices.
  • To promote mindfulness to a dispersed workforce, other employers give employees a telephone number they can dial at a scheduled time each day or week for a group-based mindfulness practice.
  • Some employers offer in-person mindfulness meditation classes, or they simply provide a room where employees can meditate.

What’s the evidence?

A number of studies indicate that MBSR programs have a positive impact on an individual’s perceived level of stress, as well as reduce self-reported levels of anxiety, depression and anger. MBSR programs also have been found to improve positive emotions, empathy, a sense of cohesion and satisfaction with life.32-42

What’s the employer experience?

Recent employer experience confirms mindfulness training as a stress reducer. Aetna has reported that more than one-quarter of the company’s workforce has participated in at least one mindfulness or yoga class. As a result, participants report a 28% decrease in their stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality and a 19% reduction in pain.43

At General Mills, 80% of employees who took part in the meditation or stress reduction program said they improved their ability to make better decisions.44

Yoga & Tai Chi

Is yoga popular among employers?

Many employers provide on-site yoga or tai chi classes. These offerings are popular because they promote stress reduction, as well as physical activity.

What’s the evidence?

Both yoga and tai chi have shown beneficial effects on stress, anxiety and depression. Yoga has also been shown to reduce fatigue, and tai chi to improve mood.46,47

Studies recommend individuals practice tai chi at least once a week – ideally more – to experience its benefits.47 This is likely similar for yoga; a study of yoga novices and experts showed that while both groups experienced a mood boost from practicing yoga, women who practiced yoga once or twice weekly for at least two years recovered from stressful events more rapidly than novices did.48

Due to their effectiveness, popularity among employees, relatively simple design, and inexpensive and easy implementation, mindfulness training and yoga are common offerings among employers.

Give Employees the Time and Space to Relax

Thirty seven percent of employers report that they have a quiet room, a dedicated space in the workplace where employees can relax, recharge or meditate.49

So-called “calm” or “zenergy” rooms feature tools such as zero gravity chairs, progressive muscle relaxation podcasts and yoga mats to help employees lessen their stress.

Some employers allow employees to use these rooms on the clock. For example: Apple employees can take up to 30 minutes each day to meditate at work, either on their own or in a class.44

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Reduce Root Causes of Stress
  2. Promote Employee Resilience
  3. Help Employees Manage the Effects of Stress
  4. Give Employees the Time and Space to Relax