How managing employee stress leads to a healthier company

Helping employees manage and cope with workplace stress can boost engagement and benefit both individuals and the business.

How managing employee stress leads to a healthier company
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In the IT industry, stress is a given, and in the startup-fueled frenzy of Silicon Valley, stress may as well be included as part of every job description. Smart businesses are turning to technology to help their employees identify and cope with stress to better improve the well-being not just of the employees themselves, but the business as a whole.

Generally speaking, Silicon Valley startups tend to be forward-thinking in their attempts to help employees both work hard and maintain work-life balance. Perks like catered meals, on-site fitness, massage and biometric screenings, remote work and flexible scheduling can all go a long way toward helping employees mitigate stress and juggle their lives outside of work. But deadlines, sales quotas, software releases, bug fixes and the constant striving toward the next round of venture capital funding or a looming IPO means these intentions aren't always helpful.

The recent revelations about Amazon's "bruising and brutal" workplace culture highlighted the "crucible of stress" that describes so many workplaces in Silicon Valley, and in other tech hub cities like Seattle, says Henry Albrecht, CEO of employee wellness solutions company Limeade.

"After 20 years in the tech industry, I believe a lot of employees, a lot of companies are working themselves to the bone because of hope ... that if they just work harder and longer, they'll get to that huge IPO and everyone will be millionaires. Honestly, the chances of that are so slim. For a whole industry to embrace that means setting a whole lot of people up for a horrible letdown," Albrecht says. This affects employees not only in terms of the success or failure of their company, but also in the detrimental effects that constant stress and pressure has on their physical and emotional health.

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Stress is the norm in Silicon Valley

That "crucible of stress" that's become the norm in many U.S. workplaces is directly at odds with research showing that, to better engage and retain top talent (a major competitive differentiator), businesses must focus on reducing workplace stress. The 2014 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, which surveyed approximately 32,000 U.S. workers across a variety of industries, included metrics on employee stress and engagement and the link between the two. The survey revealed that among people who report high stress, 51 percent are disengaged from their work, while only 9 percent say they are engaged. For employees who report low stress, though, engagement levels improve; 57 percent say they are highly engaged, and only 8 percent say they're disengaged.

To sustain employee engagement, organizations must not only create conditions that inspire employees to work hard and care about their companies, but also counteract the sources of employees' stress. In other words, employers must put some focus on managing workplace stress, so as not to undermine employee engagement.

On the move

While many IT workers have been early adopters of mobile health apps and fitness trackers, the issue is that many of these solutions are self-administered and provide information to the user without insight or a treatment plan, says James Harris, director of sales and marketing, CONCERN-EAP. That's why it's important to focus on a company-wide push for resilience and overall stress management using a range of techniques to help manage stress and perform optimally in high-pressure situations.

Calmness, anger management, sleep management, nutrition, physical fitness - it all ties together to help people perform at their best. "CONCERN-EAP functions as a 'resilience hub'; it doesn't reinvent the wheel, it aggregates quality resources and directs clients to counseling professionals, to videos, articles and all sorts of other resources they can use to build emotional resilience so they can perform more effectively," Harris says.

CONCERN-EAP is a mobile-ready portal designed around the needs of an on-the-go worker. There are four 'toolboxes' focused on specific areas where users might need assistance: sleep, stress, anger and calm, Harris explains, and each toolkit uses evidence-based, practical knowledge to guide users through building and maintaining their skills in these areas.

"We are trying to be proactive about this concept of resilience. We find our demographics are skewed more heavily toward the 30-and-under aged workers, and we want to focus on preventative aspects before they get burned out. We want users to have access to these tools before they have a mental or physical crisis so they are equipped to handle everything in their lives more effectively," Harris says.

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The sweet spot of stress

Developing resilience and effective stress management techniques doesn't mean employees won't ever have to deal with stress, but rather will be much better equipped to handle stress when situations arise - and in the IT industry, those situations will arise.

"It's not about eliminating stress completely. You do need a certain amount of it to sharpen your focus, to get your brain working hard at solving problems and be the most effective at whatever you're doing. The trick is to find what we call the 'sweet spot' of stress," says Limeade's Albrecht.

Stress isn't inherently good or bad, unless there's either too much or too little, or if people aren't equipped to handle it, according to Albrecht. Too little stress could lead to depression; too much and you'll burn out. The key is to manage stress so it's at optimal levels that can help drive workers' purpose and motivation. And doing so has to be a clear organizational priority all the way up to the C-suite.

Business have to be prepared to help their workers cope with stress, and to realize that recovery from stress is a critical element. "A lot of companies think, 'Well, I'll just show each individual person and they'll go use the resources', but that doesn't help if the culture isn't there to support that," Albrecht says. If you're pushing your employees hard, build in elements like flexible schedules, remote work opportunities and other options that can help employees recharge.

"Make sure that if there's a stressful event - like a software release, or critical project deadline -- you are giving your people time to bounce back, or they'll all burn out," Albrecht says.

Friendly competition

Limeade's solution uses a gamification approach that's socially connected to encourage collaboration and friendly competition - two factors that he says help workers not just start but stick with health and wellness initiatives.

"What we've found is that using gamification and social rewards are a much better way to foster trust, engagement and to motivate users. That friendly, low-stakes competition helps build a sense of community and they are excited to keep up. People also appreciate a 'kudos' and a 'thumbs-up' from the people they work will all day, not just from the technology," Albrecht says.

When measured through engagement, employee wellness programs that emphasize comprehensive stress management and resilience have significant bottom-line outcomes for business. "People who manage their stress well are more engaged. Engaged workers are physically and emotionally healthier; they miss fewer days of work, they are more productive when they are there. And that translates to a better bottom line," Albrecht says.

This story, "How managing employee stress leads to a healthier company" was originally published by CIO.

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