Making Work Less Stressful and More Engaging for Your Employees


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Natalia Peart for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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We all know that excessive stress is a health hazard. What is less talked about are the effects of burnout on business performance. Stress makes people nearly three times as likely to leave their jobs, temporarily impairs strategic thinking, and dulls creative abilities. Burnout, then, is a threat to your bottom line, one that costs the U.S. more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs.

The more companies realize this, the more the workplace wellness sector grows. But individual-level perks like onsite gyms and nap rooms are not the answer to our problem. In a recent study, researchers found that while there is an expectation that wellness programs will reduce health care spending and absenteeism within a year or two, they often do not. This study adds to the growing body of work suggesting that such programs are not as effective as we think.

Instead, employers need to shift to organization-level approaches for reducing stress at work, ones that foster employee well-being while simultaneously improving business performance. While this may seem unrealistic, it’s not. Over a decade of experience as a clinical psychologist and leadership consultant has taught me that burnout prevention requires reducing workplace stress while also upping employee engagement. Here’s how to do both.

Create a Work Environment That Decreases Stress

When employees are put in a high-stress situation — whether from unclear expectations, unreasonable deadlines, or a hectic workspace — they are at risk of moving into fight-or-flight mode. This is something that happens to our bodies when we feel threatened. The primal, more emotional, parts of our brains take over, and our ability to think long term, strategize, and innovate decreases. If we stay in this mode too long, eventually, we get burned out. To counter this effect, you need to build a secure work environment and incorporate stress reduction habits into your team’s daily workflows.

Increase psychological safety. If your employees perceive your workplace as a threat, then you cannot build the trust your team needs to collaborate and innovate effectively. In her book, The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson describes three steps you can take to build psychological safety. First, make your expectations obvious by giving your employees clear goals. Second, make sure everyone feels like their voices are heard, and that everyone knows that you want their voices to be heard. You can do this by inviting people to speak up in meetings and conducting brainstorming sessions more than you impose top-down decisions. Third, develop a work environment that is both challenging and unthreatening. Let people know it’s okay to fail. Recognize team members who think outside the box, and ask your employees for feedback regularly to show you’re all in it together.

Build regular break times into the workday. The human brain can focus for around 90-120 minutes before it needs to rest. That’s why you should encourage your employees to step away from their desks and mentally disengage from challenging tasks every couple of hours. Suggest they go for a short walk (especially if they have been in a series of long meetings), send out calendar invites reminding them to take breaks, and try to lead by example. Letting their minds rest and moving their bodies will provide your team with the mental space they need to perform well consistently.

Encourage the use of private workspaces when team members need to focus. Open offices are prone to distractions, increasing stress and decreasing productivity. There is sometimes a built-in expectation that employees must always be available for impromptu meetings and discussions as a result of the office layout. If you don’t have private workspaces where employees can go to focus or decompress, try using signals like “do not disturb” signs when needed, or scheduling “quiet hours” when people can work.

Set boundaries around time outside of work. Teams that are not all in one location might need to work outside of traditional hours from time to time. However, the blurring of work and personal time is a significant source of job stress. A study found that it is not just answering emails that increases employees’ anxiety — it is also the expectation that they will be available to do so outside of work hours. To combat this, set clear guidelines and follow them. Send emails and make calls after hours only when it’s urgent — and set the bar very high.

Look into flexible work policies. If you want a highly adaptive team, then create an adaptable work environment. Give your employees flexibility by allowing them to work staggered hours, taking into account their varying needs. Hold one-on-one meetings to understand those needs and find alternative arrangements for people who are struggling with work-life balance.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Natalia Peart, PhD, is a clinical psychologist & Fortune 1000 executive leadership consultant. She has served on the Federal Reserve Board, 10th District, as staff psychologist at Johns Hopkins, and CEO of the Women’s Center for Advancement. She is also the author of  Future Proofed: How To Navigate Disruptive Change, Find Calm in Chaos, and Succeed in Work & Life.


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