Expert Opinion: Four Steps to Reduce Workplace Stress

As a manager or leader, the well-being of your staff should be of utmost importance. Workplace stress is detrimental to the overall health and productivity of employees. In recognition of April being National Stress Awareness Month, the following strategies help foster a reduced-stress environment with engaged employees.

Understand the Negative Effects of Stress

A 2012 study that monitored about 22,000 women over the course of 10 years showed that work-related stress significantly increased the risk of cardiovascular disease. The long hours associated with high-stress jobs present further health problems, which was shown in another study: “Employees who work long hours have a higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours.” Furthermore, stress can lead to weight gain, with 77 percent of workers in stressful roles reporting they “feel they are overweight,” according to a CareerBuilder survey.

It’s also important to note that the hard-work mentality that causes stress doesn’t lead to more productive and engaged employees—it leads to burnout. Professors Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron researched workplace environments and how happiness affects productivity. They wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “A positive workplace is more successful over time because it increases positive emotions and well-being … [which] improves people’s relationships with each other and amplifies their abilities and their creativity.”

Make Time for Your Team and Promote Health and Wellness

One of the most critical aspects of people leadership is connecting with your staff, especially when it comes to mitigating stress. I use time blocking in my schedule and make sure that I have an hour free each day. More often than not, this is when I check in with employees or set up impromptu meetings. This allows me the chance to focus on their issues, without other distractions.

While work-life balance has become a buzzword, it’s imperative to overall happiness and productivity. As a leader, make sure to promote the value of exercise for physical health and mindfulness for mental health. Encourage your team to keep regular routines with their preferred exercise. People who get adequate physical activity (and sleep) are less likely to bring work-related stress into their personal life, according to the Journal of Applied Psychology.

I also recommend finding a way to integrate mindfulness practices into your staff’s daily lives. Mindfulness has been shown to rewire the way the brain works. Remember that change starts slowly, so lead by example and prioritize your physical and mental health, and you’ll find others inclined to do the same. Once a few staff are on board, they’ll likely encourage others, as Gallup research has found that well-being is contagious in the workplace. 

Encourage Working in Sprints and Embrace the Breaks

Even the best employees can’t be productive the entire workday. To bolster productivity and reduce stress, consider working in sprints. This workflow style is often known as the Pomodoro Technique, where you set a timer to focus only on the task at hand, then take a short break. The suggested amount of time for your work sprints vary. Thomas Oppong, founder of AllTopStartups, explains that he finds 90-minute work cycles (based on our body’s “ultradian rhythms”) make for an effective and focused workday. However, I believe it depends on the office and work at hand.

Perhaps your office environment isn’t conducive to working in sprints. A surgeon certainly can’t leave an operating table, any more than customer service agents responsible for answering phones can leave their desks. You can still encourage your staff to take breaks throughout the day and in between work sessions because it can help them stay focused in the long run.

Longer breaks, like lunch breaks, shouldn’t be something that only happens as time allows, but an everyday occurrence. A survey by Tork showed that employees who take a lunch break each day are more effective, satisfied, and efficient.

Practice Self-Care

Lastly, you can’t lead effectively if you don’t first take care of yourself. As a manager, I not only practice what I preach and observe the above practices myself, but I also stay mindful about how stress affects my abilities as a leader. I genuinely care about the people on my team – I want them to do well, and I want them to be well. Know that you can’t completely eliminate stress as it will inevitably pop up, but you can do your best to get in front of your employees’ stress and help make their work environment a happier one.

Michael Z. Stahl serves as Executive Vice President of HealthMarkets—one of the nation’s largest independent insurance agencies in the Medicare, individual and supplemental health, life, and small group insurance markets.