The world we live in today is a lot more stressful than it used to be—and that might not change any time soon. The COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest, and global tragedies are just a few of the things that weigh heavily on our society. Two in three adults (67%) say that they have experienced an increase in stress levels over the course of the pandemic.
In addition to worldwide stressors, individuals face the stress of adapting to new situations and handling everyday pressures with work, relationships, health, and more. This chronic stress can be detrimental to physical, mental, and emotional health and, in extreme cases, can lead to substance abuse and suicide.
While we don’t have control over many of the stressors in our environment, there are measures we can take to increase our resilience to stress and improve the mental well-being of ourselves and those around us. Organizations can play an important role in developing long-term solutions to combat stress and promote an environment of resilience for the people in their organization. Here’s how:
Understanding the science behind stress puts us in a better position to find ways to work with it. When most people think of stress, they associate it with negative experiences and assume it is a bad thing. However, the reality is that stress serves a valuable purpose.
In prehistoric ages, early humans relied heavily on their biological responses for survival. When they were under threat, they needed to fight predators or run away from them. Scientists refer to this as the fight, flight, or freeze response. This is not inherently a bad thing, as it has served to protect our species throughout the ages.
The problem, however, is when we experience too much stress for long periods of time. Stress will eventually take a toll on your body—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Consequences of stress can include physical symptoms, such as headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. It can also lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
The Performance Zone
Neil Shah, chief de-stressing officer of The Stress Management Society and founder of International Wellbeing Insights and Avetta Fellow, explains that when we find the right amount of stress, performance thrives. Too much stress will quickly lead to burnout, where we are not as effective, we don’t think clearly, and we are more likely to cut corners and make mistakes (which can lead to accidents and injuries). On the other hand, too little stress will cause one to “rust out,” which often includes a fall into depression. When we find the balance of pressure, this is called the “performance zone,” where we feel our best.
The Bridge Analogy
A helpful analogy for understanding how we tolerate stress is imagining ourselves as a bridge. A bridge can handle a lot of weight, but if all the weight is concentrated in one spot and continues to become heavier, there comes a point when the bridge will collapse. For a person, this might look like a breakdown, a heart attack or other serious health issue, substance abuse, or, in extreme cases, taking one’s own life. Shah suggests that, like a bridge at a breaking point, we can reduce stress by either spreading out the load or providing extra support.
Changing Your Organization
The first step in changing your organization is evaluating where you currently stand. This can be done through interviews, surveys, focus groups, and visits. Next, create a clear vision of where you want your organization to be. Then create a roadmap for how you will get there. This might include initiatives like training, workshops, and support pathways. The important thing is to not just focus on the initiative but on the strategy that will lead to long-term results and lasting changes.
If you need a place to start, Neil Shah offers some specific ways organizations can likely improve:
1. Connect with people: One crucial aspect of improving mental health in the workplace is truly connecting with people. Especially in an increasingly virtual environment, we are losing those “water cooler” conversations and really understanding how people are doing and what is going on in their lives. We ask, “How are you?” but never expect anything more than “Good, thanks. And you?” The Ask Twice campaign aims to address this by encouraging people to always follow up with another question, such as “How are you really?” “What’s going on with you in your life?” or “What challenges are you facing?”
2. Be genuine: If you want people to give honest answers, you too must be authentic. Be willing to talk openly and share experiences, and others will feel free to do the same.
3. Don’t neglect the simple things: Encourage people to do the simple things that will make a big difference in their physical and mental well-being, such as staying hydrated, taking breaks, unplugging from technology and being mindful.
4. Offer support: Make sure your organization offers support and resources for coping with stress and dealing with mental health challenges and crises. Put up signs and send out emails; make sure it is clear where people can get help if they need it.
While healthy amounts of stress can be helpful, the stressors in our environment today are high, and many people are experiencing negative consequences in the form of physical, mental, and emotional health challenges. Organizations can be proactive and help their people be more resilient to stress by spreading out their load and offering additional support. And by focusing on genuine connections, we can better understand people’s situations and avoid serious negative consequences before it is too late. This isn’t just about starting “initiatives”: It’s about developing long-term solutions and changes that will transform your organization for good.
Richard Parke is SVP, Supplier Services at Avetta.